Category Archives: In the News

The Same God?: a look at Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism

A firestorm ensued at Wheaton College this past December when a professor, citing Pope Francis, declared via Facebook that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.[i]  Her evangelical employer suspended her, which in turn somehow turned into a national story.  What probably should have been left as an in house debate among Evangelical Christians has turned into quite a controversy, eliciting commentary spanning a multitude of religious beliefs and ideologies.  Most of what I’ve read has been unenthusiastic toward Wheaton, to say the least.  Despite the unfortunate tone and rancor, it’s not necessarily a negative situation that this issue is now public.  What I’m seeing and hearing leads me to this: in these often heated discussions comes clarity.  Clarity of doctrine and beliefs.  Clarity of hearts.  Painful though some of the talk is to hear,[ii] it gives us as evangelicals an idea of where the culture stands on this issue and, more importantly, where fellow Christian leaders and organizations stand.

Before moving on, let me state that I’ll be discussing several major belief systems: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism.  The reason I include the latter two is because the exact same question arises in regard to these religions from time to time, particularly Mormonism.

On to the question: Do Christians worship the same God as Muslims, Jews, and Mormons?  Personally, I don’t like the way the question is framed.  It leads to varying interpretations of what is meant by “worship” and “same God.” Upon reading and listening to the various discussions on this topic, it’s clear more questions need to be raised to clarify the debate.  Here are but a few:

  1. Is the God of the Quran and the Bible the same? In other words, is God described differently in the Bible, Quran, or various LDS texts?
  2. Do Christians and Muslims have in mind the same God?
  3. If Christians, Muslim, Jews, and Mormons have in mind the same God, is it appropriate to state that they worship this God based on the totality of their beliefs?
  4. What is meant by worship? Is it merely a devotion to a set of beliefs?  Is there a true worship that goes beyond asceticism, what Jesus called worshiping “in Spirit and in truth”?

How the above questions are answered directly affects the central question.  With that in mind I’ll describe three main approaches to this question.  Next, some key Scriptures will be cited along with some comments.  After examining what the Bible has to say on the matter, we’ll return to the approaches and ascertain which approach best fits each faith – in relation to the central question.

Approach One: the same God is in view & the same God is worshiped.

From all appearances, this view is the most popular, and pairs well with Inclusivism.  The reasoning is that all four belief systems accept the biblical view of God, for the most part.  So Islam, for instance, is considered one of the Abrahamic religions because it accepts Abraham, as well as Moses, as true patriarchs.  Since the God of Abraham is the God of the Bible, then Muslims must have in mind the same God.  Whether they call this deity “God” or “Allah” is immaterial.  These are just language based terms for the same being.  Furthermore, their worship of God is evident in their strict devotion to the sacred texts.  While there are certainly differences in theology and practice, who are we to say that Muslims, Jews, or Mormons are not truly worshiping God?  Nobody has perfect beliefs, so charity should reign.[iii]

Approach Two: the same God is in view, but the same God is not worshiped.

This view actually has some evangelical support.  There is a realization that the major Abrahamic religions based their identity in the Patriarchs.  This alone indicates that the same God is in view.  However, that doesn’t mean that true worship is occurring.  Though one can have right beliefs about who God is, it does not follow that one is showing true devotion regardless of additional theological ideas and practices.  As Paul noted in Romans, one can have a “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”  The meaning is clear: one can have in mind the right God, but not be a true worshiper of that God.

Approach Three: different gods are in view; therefore, worship is of different deities

This view acknowledges that the major religions trace their origins back to Abraham.  Therefore, a great deal of similarity is to be expected.  However, there is also a great deal of difference.  With the introduction of new sacred texts (i.e, the Quran) has come a redefinition of God.  And when God is redefined, God is no longer God.  A new deity has been imagined.  The evidence of this is seen in the type of devotion given, as well as how God is spoken of.  In other words, there is enough variation to warrant the belief that Christians, Muslims, and Mormons have in mind a different God.  Therefore, when each group worships, it is directed toward the God of their sacred texts, the God they have in mind.

Scripture Examined

With these three approaches now defined, it’s necessary to look at a few Scriptures that have a bearing on this subject (with some comments following):

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24)

There’s not only a differing view of God in play, but also a differing understanding of worship.  We must realize that when others talk about “worship” they have in mind something else, typically any type of devotion or acceptance of a religion, either in whole or in part.  Since the definition is greatly broadened, it behooves us to use this opportunity to clarify what Jesus said about true worship.  In biblical Christianity, it’s not merely about following right practices.  True worship is a matter of the heart, not a rote memorization of some text, or a daily prayer ritual.  Biblical worship is based on a correct understanding of God’s nature and revelation (truth), in addition to a deep and abiding love of God and his ways (spirit).  Without these two in unison, true worship cannot be accomplished.

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.  For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.  For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:1b-3)

In these verses Paul is speaking of the unbelieving Jews of his day.  They rejected Jesus as their Messiah.  What is significant for the present discussion is that he assumes that they have in mind the same God, despite them rejecting Christ and, by extension, all of the theology that comes with him.  The Jews have the right God in mind, but their knowledge is now deficient and cannot save them.  As further discussed below, this passage lends support to applying Approach Two to Judaism.

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. (John 8:42-44a)

These verses are sometimes cited as proof that Jews who reject Jesus are not worshiping the same God.[iv]  This would put them in Approach One, the same boat as Islam and Mormonism.  But recall that there are two main points we are considering: (1) what God is in mind, & (2) if the same God, is he truly being worshiped?  In reading the passage above along with its wider context, Jesus isn’t dealing with question one.  Rather, it’s all about worship.  The Jews in conversation had the right God in mind, but their hearts were far from him.  Their hearts had become so calloused in fact, that not only were they not worshiping God, they had even turned into servants of Satan himself.  The devil had become their “father,” even while they diligently worked to keep every jot and tittle of the Law.  Taking these verses in accord with what Paul writes in Romans 9-11, it becomes clear that unbelieving, religious Jews know who God is, but they are not worshiping him since they have rejected Jesus.

With the above thoughts in mind, let’s revisit the three approaches and apply the truths of Scripture to the present topic and central question.  Restated again: Is the God of Christianity the same as the God of Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism?

Approach One: Same God, Same Worship

The only religious groups that would fall into this category would be the various Protestant denominations.  These are the Christian groups who hold to the Bible as the true and only word of God, and seek to live by it.  Much of liberal Protestantism would be excluded since they reject large sums of biblical revelation about God, and in some cases radically redefine both his being and his character.  Arguably some sects of Roman Catholicism could squeak in – or, at least many individuals within the Catholic church – since some have a higher view of the Bible than of tradition.

Approach Two: Same God, Different Worship

Much of Judaism falls into this category.  While religious Jews utilize tradition and some other texts, their ultimate guide to theology is the Torah.  Therefore, as explained above, they have in view the right God.  However, in their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, they are not worshiping him according to knowledge.  A large segment of Roman Catholicism falls into this category.  Rome has placed tradition at such a high level that it has become equal to the Scriptures themselves.  As a result, the pontiff of Rome is given undue adulation (the “vicar of Christ”), Mary, the mother of Jesus is exalted far beyond what is acceptable, the saints are prayed to, and the gospel itself is muddied.  This being said, I’m not stating that all Catholics are unsaved. Rather, Rome’s man-made traditions have so obfuscated the gospel that it’s hard to know the truth to be saved.[v]  And that is tragic.

Approach Three: Different God, Different Worship

This category involves both Islam and Mormonism.  When comparing the God of the Bible with the God of Islam, it’s evident that Allah is a different God.  Since a new text has been introduced with new ideas about God, we must conclude that a different deity is in view.[vi]  In the case of Mormonism the differences are even starker.  God has been completely redefined into something, or someone else.[vii]  In both cases, Muslims and Mormons do indeed practice devotion and worship, but the object of that worship is not the God of the Bible.[viii]

Conclusion

Christianity is both inclusive and exclusive, albeit in different senses.  It’s inclusive in that anyone, anywhere, regardless of ethnicity, upbringing, or past actions, has access to salvation through Jesus Christ.  It’s exclusive in that salvation only comes through Jesus, meaning that neither one’s ethnicity nor good actions plays any part in obtaining eternal life.  It’s this exclusive aspect of biblical Christianity that so offends.  And, oh does it ever ruffle feathers.  But it always has.  And it always will.  Jesus himself said as much, and his Apostles encountered this opposition in force.  Despite this, we are to proclaim the truth: there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. He is God’s prophet, priest, and king.  He is the God-man, who came to die a sinner’s death to save sinners.  We must trust in his provision – there is no other provision available.  To reject the Son is to reject eternal life.  We must worship this same Lord in spirit and in truth, and we must testify of his truth to others, in the hope that they might do the same.

Notes:

[i] Smietana, Bob, “Wheaton College Suspends Hijab-Wearing Professor After ‘Same God’ Comment.”  From: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/december/wheaton-college-hijab-professor-same-god-larycia-hawkins.html.  Posted 12 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.  The professor at the center is Dr. Larycia Hawkins, who wrote: “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”  Regarding what the Pope said, it should be noted that he was merely affirming what has become standard church doctrine: “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their desserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” Emphasis mine.  From Nostra Aetate 3, in the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Second Vatican Council, 28 Oct 1965.  Found here: https://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/v2non.htm.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[ii] One could choose from over a dozen articles from The Huffington Post.  The anti-Christian sentiments at that site are legendary, so it’s no wonder a story like this led to such outrage.  Here’s one: Gilberson, Karl, “The Strange Theology of Wheaton College.”  From: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-giberson-phd/the-strange-theology-of-w_b_8939466.html.  Posted 08 Jan 2016.   Accessed 11 Jan 2016.  As others have done, Gilberson, a professor at Stonehill College, accuses Wheaton of anti-Muslim bigotry and asserts that their position is illogical.  For a refreshingly fair non-evangelical opinion piece on the situation, and why Wheaton did what they did: Laats, Adam. “Elite Wheaton College Still a School of a Different Sort.”  From: http://chicago.suntimes.com/opinion/7/71/1234531/elite-wheaton-college-still-school-different-sort.  Posted 08 Jan 2016.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[iii] As an example a professor at Louisville Seminary, Amy Plantinga Pauw states: “No one is in a position of saying, ‘Well, we know exactly how God works in the world, and my particular group has a monopoly on that,’” as quoted here: Gjelten, Tom, “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”  From: http://www.npr.org/2015/12/20/460480698/do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-god. Updated 21 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[iv] Mohler, R. Albert. “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?”   From: http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/12/18/do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-god/.  Posted 18 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

[v] The parallels between the traditions of Rome and the traditions of the Pharisees and scribes are hard to miss.  Both add to the written word multiple new rules; both place tradition on an equal footing with the scriptures; both have enjoyed much “pomp and circumstance”; both have placed undue burdens upon their followers; both have been guilty of the deaths of God’s servants.  The list could be longer.  Listen to Jesus’ biting words: “You have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 10:52b ESV – for a more in depth context: Luke 10:37-53, Matt. 23:1-35).  For an example from Judaism describing the “Two Torahs” (written and oral): https://www.templeinstitute.org/oral_tradition.htm.  Accessed 13 Jan 2016.  For an example from Catholiscism: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/scripture-and-tradition.  Accessed 13 Jan 2016.  The similarities between the two approaches to the Bible and tradition are striking.  It bears stating that Jesus himself never criticized the Torah.  He did, however, repeatedly criticize tradition.  In fact, he never said anything good about it.  The problem, it seems, is that tradition inevitably undermines the truth of God’s word.

[vi] While there are many similarities with the Judeo-Christian understand of God, the differences should not be underestimated.  As an example, Allah in Islam could never be called “Father” as in Christianity.  See: Hosein, Imran Nazar. “Islam Rejects the False Doctrine of the Fatherhood of God.”  From: http://www.imranhosein.org/articles/understanding-islam/87-islam-rejects-the-false-doctrine-of-the-fatherhood-of-god.html.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.  Hosein misunderstands, for the large part, what is meant by biblical reference to God as “father.”  He isn’t a father in the literal, technical sense of intercourse/pregnancy/birth, as Hosein (and the Quran) asserts.  Rather, he is father in a more metaphorical, though real way as our Creator who loving treats us as sons.  But even this Hosein seems to reject:  “Neither is Allah Most High father, nor can He be even compared with father, since He is incomparable. Indeed elementary common sense reveals that He cannot be father since, although He created both the male and the female, He is neither male nor female.” It seems inescapable that Allah is capricious and distant.  Therefore, there can be no dynamic relationship between Allah and man, even though Allah is said to answer prayers and offer mercy.  Yet this isn’t the same as the relational God of the Bible.

I should also note that Islam is not a monolithic movement.  There are varieties of thought regarding these issues.  However, the traditional concept of Allah in Islam is as noted here.  Additionally, most conservative Muslims (if that’s the term to use) like Hosein would almost certainly agree that Allah is not the same as the God of the Jews and Christians.

[vii] I’ve spoken with several Mormon missionaries (“elders”) about this very subject.  They tend to be cagey when it comes to Joseph Smith’s “revelations” that God is an exalted man who was once was much like us.  But pressed on the subject, they capitulate – though the subject is quickly turned elsewhere.  The confusing part is that Mormons use virtually identical theological terminology.  But as I pointed out to them, if I describe my wife to someone, yet my physical description of her is different than what she looks like, and my description of her personality is different, then I’m not talking about my wife.  I’m talking about someone else.  It matters not one bit that I call her by her correct name.

[viii] For another interesting take on the controversy, and a defense of the fact different Gods are in view: Cochran, Matthew. “Wheaton is Right: the Christian and Muslim Gods are Different.”  From: http://thefederalist.com/2015/12/21/wheaton-is-right-the-christian-and-muslim-gods-are-different/.  Posted 21 Dec 2015.  Accessed 11 Jan 2016.

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In Whom Do We Hope?

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.  They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.  Psalm 20:7-8 (ESV)

The election for President of the United States is now over.  Barack Obama supporters rejoice while many Mitt Romney supporters sulk in defeat.  Having watched with interest the campaign and having come to the conclusion that Mr. Romney was the better choice based on social and economic concerns, I was initially among the dejected.  Four more years of piling national debt?  More liberal judges on the Supreme Court?  Will the economic sector be able to thrive?  These questions quickly turned to fears.  So I had to step back, turn off Fox News, and consider what life is really all about.  After all, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18).

The verses quoted above tell us two things: (1) the things that the world relies upon for safety and security will collapse; (2) if we trust in God, we will stand.  As to the first, the terms “horses” and “chariots” refer to military might.  If you had enough of these you could adequately defend your homeland, or even conquer neighboring countries.  With this strength would come prosperity and stability, and with those, peace and security.  Yet we cannot limit the verses to mere military might.  Anything we trust in that promises either peace or security can become a pitfall, an idol.  Examples today can indeed include a strong military.  But what about a messianic political figure?  A supreme court that will rule righteously?  A government that has more control?  A government with less control?  A strong economy?  Better educaton?  More technological advances to cure our ills?  The list can go on and on.  We can even rephrase the verse to illustrate:
 
“Some trust in Obama, and some in Romney . . .”
“Some trust in Democrats, and some in Republicans . . .”
“Some trust in a nuclear defense system and a strong navy . . .”
“Some trust in science and some in education . . .”
“Some trust in food storage, and some in their survival skills . . .”
 
What am I saying?  That it’s wrong to to support a candidate, have a strong military, or store food?  Of course not.  Israel had a trained army and Joseph stored tons of food in lieu of a famine.  What is wrong is when we get so wrapped up in any one of them, that we forget the One in charge, the One who created the heavens and the earth, the One who will bring it to its appropriate end.  He is the one who loves us, sent His Son to die for us, and desires us to trust Him above all things.  We were created to worship God alone, and when we get depressed over a candidate losing, or even a favorite sports team getting beaten, we are demonstrating a heart that has lost its bearing.  On the flip side, if we spend too much time and energy rejoicing in these things, this can also be proof to us that our desires are not in alignment with God’s.
 
So I’m not going to spend time being down and out about this election.  Yes, there will likely be some events occur in the next few years that will not align with my ideas.  And it’s not wrong to ponder, discuss, disagree.  But what I must remember is that God is in control, Jesus will come back again some day (soon!), and all these temporal issues and trials will vanish.
 
My word to Romney supporters: Don’t put your hope in a party or a candidate.  They will fail you.  Hope in Christ.  He will never fail you.
 
My word to Obama supporters: Don’t put your hope in a party or a candidate.  They will fail you.  Hope in Christ.  He will never fail you.
 
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 Jn. 5:21)

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20/20 Takes on Heaven

I just finished watching the two-hour 20/20 special, “Heaven: Where is it? How do we get there?”  Honestly, I didn’t expect much, so I wasn’t disappointed in what I got.  What does make me sad is how much distortion and deception there is on this topic.  Actually, it’s more provoking than anything.  It made me want to . . . well . . . blog about it.

In true post-modern style, we were treated to a smorgasbord of ideas from Barbara Walters and company.  Various faiths and non-believers had their say.  Even hell had a short segment at the end.  Very little of biblical truth was presented.  Barbara (yeah, we’re on a first name basis) did interview Joel Osteen.  He managed to state that Jesus was the only way to heaven, so that was good, but so much more needed to be said.  There are a couple of key truths that seem to elude virtually everyone, including an increasing number of Christians.  A lot more could be said, but let’s start with these two . . .

First, there is a tendency to think that heaven is achieved by how good we are.  Most people take this view.  We like to earn things by nature, so why not heaven?  Yet the Bible indicates very clearly that no amount of good works can get us into heaven.  It would be like a serial killer (think Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer) who thinks he should be released from prison because he bought some Girl Scout cookies, or gave some change to a homeless guy.  The problem is that the good deed comes nowhere close to matching the atrocities committed.  In the same way, our sin is presented in the Bible as an atrocity against God, our Creator.  No amount of goodness can cover that amount of rebellion. (cf. Rom. 3:9-20; Eph. 2:9).

Second, most people come at this issue with the idea that heaven is the default destination for themselves and everyone else.  This comes from the idea that we are good by nature.  However, Scripture gives us a totally different picture.  We are by nature rebels and we have sinned repeatedly against a perfectly holy God.  Therefore, the default destination is hell.  As the Paul wrote, we are all “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).

The Bible paints a bleak picture of humanity.  To sum it up, we’re not nearly as good as we thought – in fact we’re criminally bad.  And we’re not headed toward a future blissful existence – we’re destined for the due penalty for our sins.  We are doomed.

Well, not quite.  Not everyone.  There is more to this story.  Thankfully!  In the very same passages mentioned above, we also read these beautiful, life-giving verses:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by faith you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6)

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-26).

Yes, there is a heaven.  We’re not told exactly where it is.  But we are told how to get there: by faith in Jesus Christ, and repentance of our sins.  In an age of confusion, where every idea gets heard and the only ones viewed with suspicion are those stated with certainty, this truth must be proclaimed.  It is what a dying world desperately needs.

**All Scripture cited from  the English Standard Version, Crossway, 2001.

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Joseph and Christian Leadership

It has been said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Even a cursory survey of human history brings to mind tragic stories of promising men who ascended to powerful positions only to wind up as corrupt and paranoid mad men. Even recent church history is rife with scandal, as leaders have abused their position through love of money, sex, power, or some combination of all three.  The world has taken notice.  It is one thing to be a secular leader who falls, quite another when a religious leader does the same.  Little tolerance is given to the latter, as Christian leaders in particular have been judged rather harshly for their scandals.

Despite the recent scandals, most Christian leaders live exemplary lives.  One of the key ways to keep above the fray is to consider the examples in Scripture.  Of course, Jesus Christ is the greatest one to emulate.  But in the life of Joseph is found one who rose to the top of the Egyptian government, from slavery, to prison, to Pharaoh’s right hand man, yet was able to keep his head and spiritual life intact with such amazing faith that it can only be viewed as being a gift of God.  It will become clear that Joseph’s life is well worth studying for leadership or for life in general. Few can match the leadership skills he displayed.  In fact, many people have noted that Joseph is one of the few major characters in Scripture about whom nothing negative is recorded. This post will give various accounts of Joseph’s life and will include four areas of his leadership that are worthy to be emulated: faithfulness, honesty, discernment, and humility.  The text of Scripture will be from the narrative on Joseph’s life found in Genesis 37, 39-47, 50.[1]

Trustworthiness – (39:2-6)

When Joseph was a young man of about seventeen, he was sold by his jealous brothers to Ishmaelite merchants and taken to Egypt, where he ended up at the household of Potiphar, an official of Pharaoh.  It was partially because of Joseph’s obedience to his father’s command (Gen. 37:13) that his circumstance became so dire, and now in Egypt Joseph demonstrates his trustworthiness again, this time to his master, Potiphar.

We read in the text that the primary reason why Joseph prospered was because the Lord was with him (39:2).  But God’s help is in accordance with Joseph’s own faithfulness in fulfilling his duties.  Certainly God could override all circumstances, but he chooses instead to work with His creatures, especially in their obedience.  When it is said in Scripture that God is with someone or favors someone, it is always in accordance with their faithful actions.  Potiphar saw that the Lord was with Joseph and that Joseph was trustworthy, so he put him in charge of his entire household, leaving in “Joseph’s care everything he had” (39:3-6).

Joseph’s trustworthiness was challenged when Potiphar’s wife began to make advances.  She desired an affair with Joseph, but his response to her was to cite his master’s trust of him to take care of his household and that to sleep with her would be a sin against God (39:7-9).  Though he never touched her, she took his cloak and used it against him, lying to Potiphar that he tried to force himself upon her.  Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison where he found favor in the eyes of the warden, who put him in charge of many prison related duties (39:12-23).

The faith of Joseph in continuing to do good even when bad events follow needs to be heeded.  He obeyed his father, yet he wound up in slavery in a foreign land; he faithfully obeyed Potiphar, and he was falsely accused and sent to prison.  And even now he was being trustworthy in the most base habitation imaginable—prison.  Many times in leadership, we will be tempted to turn away from our faithfulness as negative circumstances choke the life out of our plans and self-image.  Yet Joseph demonstrates that the leader God has chosen is encouraged to persevere, knowing that God is with him.  Darkness comes before the dawn, and in every position of authority there will be times of darkness.  But the Christian leader is to continue to be faithful and trustworthy in his position.

Honesty – (40:9-19)

While in prison Joseph was tending to two of Pharaoh’s servants who had fallen out of his favor, the baker and the cupbearer.  One day Joseph noticed that they were down and dejected; after inquiring into the matter he found out that they each had a dream and were perplexed as to the meanings.  Joseph first listened to the cupbearer’s dream about a vine with three branches full of grapes that he, the cupbearer, squeezed into Pharaoh’s cup.  After listening to him, Joseph gave the positive interpretation that in three days the cupbearer would be restored to his previous position (40:9-15).

After listening to the cupbearer’s happy fortune, the baker told Joseph his dream, one in which three baskets of bread sat on his head while birds ate out of those baskets.  Then Joseph had the unenviable task of telling the baker what the dream meant.  In three days Pharaoh would hang the baker and the birds of the sky would eat away his flesh (40:16-19).  Both interpretations came true; the baker was killed and cupbearer was restored to his position, but he forgot about Joseph (40:20-23).

Another amazing truth about Joseph is that he was incredibly honest.  How easy it is to tell people good news!  The fact is, human nature is such that we like to be liked—so much so that sometimes the truth is compromised so that peace can be achieved.  It is easy to fall prey to such behavior, yet Joseph did not water down the interpretation God had given him regarding the fate of the chief baker.  Honesty had gotten Joseph in trouble with his brothers, but that did not stop him from being honest here.

In the same way, leaders are to be honest with everyone even in situations where the truth hurts.  Oftentimes it will.  Joseph had asked the cupbearer to remember him, but Joseph was forgotten and remained in prison another two years (41:1).  And it is almost certain that the baker did not have Joseph high on his list of favorite people.  So also, leaders and teachers are to proclaim the truth of God’s word and not try to water it down so that it becomes more palatable for the sheep.  Watering down the truth would not have done the chief baker any good, and it will certainly not do Christians good either.

 Discernment and Prudence – (41:33-40)

While Joseph was still sitting in prison, Pharaoh had a couple of dreams.  In one, there were seven fat cows followed by seven thin cows, and in the other, seven healthy heads of grain, followed by seven dry heads of grain.  In both dreams the sickly seven at up the healthy seven.  None of Pharaoh’s magicians could interpret the dreams, but the cupbearer remembered Joseph and Pharaoh sent for him.  Joseph gave Pharaoh the interpretations, both the dreams meant the same thing—there would be seven years of good crops and plenty of rain, followed by seven years of drought and scarce food.  The drought would be so terrible that the people would forget about the previous years of plenty.

After telling Pharaoh the interpretation, Joseph goes on to give him some instructions on the best way to handle the situation.  He suggests that Pharaoh appoint a wise man over the land of Egypt along with commissioners to oversee the gathering of one fifth of the grain harvest.  This grain was to be kept in reserve for the time of famine.  Upon hearing all of this, Pharaoh saw Joseph’s discernment and placed him in charge of virtually everything in Egypt.

Once again Joseph proved himself to be honest in rightly handling the truth of God’s interpretation, but now he is found to be wise in understanding and dealing with difficult situations.  While nobody else knew what to do, Joseph put forth a plan that would save the Egyptians, and many others, from starvation and ruin.  The wisdom he displayed did not go unnoticed by Pharaoh, who immediately understood who to put in charge.

Christian leaders are to display wisdom and discernment in handling people and various situations that arise.  Of course, the first step in attaining wisdom is to know and fear God.  Proverbs states that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (9:10).  It cannot be overstated the importance of the Christina leader’s relationship with Jesus Christ.  Only a humble submission to His Lordship and a firm grasp upon His word will the leader truly lead effectively.

 Humility – (45:1-15, 50:19-21)

The famine eventually came and much of the surrounding areas were affected.  Among those coming to Egypt for help were Joseph’s older brothers.  When Joseph recognized them, he was moved to tears (42:24).  But he pretended not to know them and sent them back to Canaan with the orders to bring back the youngest, Benjamin, while the oldest, Simeon, would be kept behind to ensure their return.  Upon their return, they met again with Joseph.  He gave them a feast and after seeing his younger brother, once again wept (43:30).  After a while, Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, those who had treated him so badly and sent him into slavery.  Weeping loudly, he cried to them “I am Joseph!” (45:2-3).  What he said next truly revealed his heart and his understanding of God’s ways: “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. . .to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (45:5,7).  He then gave them instructions to bring back his father, Jacob; along with everyone else they were to live in Egypt so that they might have provisions.

What was perhaps the most startling attribute of Joseph was his tender heart.  He had every opportunity to let bitterness eat at him while on his journey to Egypt, as a slave, or while in prison.  And he also had the chance to become prideful in his new position of authority.  Yet Joseph did not let past aggressions or his power to change his heart.  He knew God and exemplified what it meant to be a humble servant and leader.

In the same way, Christian leaders cannot afford to let past hurts create a revengeful spirit within them.  Forgiveness is to be an important aspect of the leader’s life, since it will be required time after time.  If bitterness takes root, the heart will grow cold, and the ministry will dry up.  Additionally, a humble, tender heart is especially needed in positions where the flock’s admiration and accolades will threaten to make the leader feel too much pride.

Conclusion

In an age where many leaders, both secular and Christian, have fallen from their positions, and have created a general distrust among the populace regarding people of authority, it is especially important for Christian leaders to look at the life of Joseph as a model to follow.  If the need is to feed the sheep, Joseph’s honesty is a model of accurately handling Scripture.  If the goal is to model Christ-likeness, Joseph’s humility is a good example of living a godly life.  Of course, Joseph was not perfect, but he was used by God to keep Israel from starving in the famine, and is a great example for us today on how to be an effective Christian leader.


[1]All Scripture taken from the New International Version, Broadman & Holman, 1996.

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Christianity and Homosexuality, pt 2: An alleged inconsistency

Question: Why do churches harp on homosexuality so much?  Aren’t there many other sins they’re ignoring? 

The short answer is, yes and no.  A slightly longer answer is this: society has made homosexuality an issue, and the church has responded in kind to this new normalization.  If the issue was some other deviation, such as adultery or incest, there would be little said about homosexuality, and much said about the other two.

But we need an even longer answer.  It is a common conception that conservative Christians focus too much time and energy on homosexuality.  But this isn’t fully accurate.  Christians have the appearance of being unbalanced in this area for a couple of reasons.  For one, the political aspect of gay marriage and same sex benefits has brought this issue to the forefront.  Most Christians vote, and since they don’t find these ideas good for the country, they bring up the issue to their representatives, and also write and speak about them.  It’s therefore in the news a lot and Christians seem only to be focused on this particular issue.  Secondly, there are the extreme preachers and churches that do indeed put a great deal of time and effort into an anti-homosexual message.  A few have even done outlandish things such as picket the funerals of gay people, and preach sermons about rounding up gays and killing them.  Even though the vast majority of Christians abhor such behavior, and even though only a small percentage of Sunday sermons even mention homosexuality, guess who gets the media attention?  So when a non-Christian or gay rights supporter hears a hate-filled rant from a pulpit, or watches the unbiblical antics of Westboro Baptist with their “God Hates Fags” signs, is it any wonder that they attribute these attitudes to most conservative Christians?

The truth is that the Bible teaches that we all have sinned and fall (continually) short of his glory.  Everyone struggles with sin.  Whether gossip, slander, pride, violence, unjust anger, lust, or the myriad types of sexual perversions – God requires us all to repent.  Not only that, he has called believers in Jesus to teach others that we all must turn from our sins and believe in him.  On the one hand, Christians must call out all sin, including, but never limited to, homosexual behavior, since all sin keeps us from God.  On the other hand, when society experiences a tidal wave shift in thinking on a particular issue – in this case, homosexuality – it is perfectly reasonable, and should be expected, that Christians will respond.  The questions for Christians are: How am I responding?  Humbly or arrogantly?  With love or condescension?  And how much time am I focusing on this?  Is there a lack of balance?

One other thing to keep in mind is the fact that every group has its “black sheep” who make life difficult for everybody else.  There are millions of Christians and thousands of churches.  Just looking at the mathematical odds, of course there are going to be Christians and churches doing and saying outlandish things.  This fact really should go without saying, and I would have liked to have not said it, but I think it is easily forgotten, or at least ignored.  It is simply unreasonable to judge Christianity by the rogues out there who are not in any way representative of the whole.

In summary, our modern culture has made homosexuality an issue by normalizing it more than any previous culture in history.  Anyone who disagrees is often labeled “backward” or a “bigot.”  Society has drawn “first blood” in this issue, and Christians have responded.  Unfortunately, some have answered to fire with fire, and this has raised the ire of the pro-gay movement even more.  Yet it must be understood that the Bible does condemn homosexual acts, and it would be a violation of the Christian’s conscience to sit idly by while others are saying it’s “okay.”  We must call sin, sin, yet do so with gentleness, respect, and humility, knowing that we too are sinners.  To do otherwise would be unloving.

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Series on an important topic – homosexuality

One of the more heated debates in modern America has to do with gay marriage.  Should it be legal?  Is such a union legitimate at all?  At the heart of the discussion is the morality of homosexuality itself.  Is it really sinful?  Churches and secular culture, once largely in agreement on this topic, are now at odds, with the latter defending vehemently the right to express one’s sexuality as he or she desires.  Even many professing Christians are now voicing support for gay marriage.  Others have fallen silent, instead focusing on building friendships, and shunning any type of controversy that might hinder their mission.

There are many questions to be answered, and misunderstandings and misconceptions abound.  My hope is to list some of the major objections to a Christian understanding of homosexuality and offer an honest, reasonable, and gentle response.  Here is a list of some the topics to be discussed (though more may be added):

Jesus never condemned homosexuality.  Rather, he showed love and acceptance to everyone.  Should not Christians follow his example?

Why do churches harp on homosexuality so much?  Aren’t there many other sins they’re ignoring? 

Why appeal to Leviticus to condemn homosexual practice when you ignore all of the other laws?  Do you pick up sticks on the Sabbath?  Do you wear clothes with different types of fabric?  It seems that Christians are picking and choosing.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah was about the townspeople being inhospitable, not about being homosexuals. 

Paul was simply teaching the sexual mores of his day.  He did not have access to what modern science has shown about the genetic aspects.

Homosexuality is a desire that is proven to be genetic.  It is also proven to be unalterable.  Yet churches continue to teach that LGBT’s can change their orientation.  Why do you continue to deny the obvious?

Many LGBT’s want to worship and serve God, but feel excluded.  Shouldn’t churches follow the lead of many other Christian congregations by welcoming homosexuals into their fellowship and realizing that they have something to offer?  Isn’t this the example Jesus set forth? 

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Is There Life on Other Planets? Part 1: Theological Considerations

It is next to impossible to look up at the night sky and not be awestruck.  The vastness of our galaxy is immense and the amazing thing is that what we see with our eyes is but a tiny glimpse of our galaxy – meaning we’re only seeing a few thousand of the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way.  And even more incredible is that our galaxy is but one of at least 200 billion other galaxies in the universe.  Now this should – first of all – inspire us to praise the Maker of such an enormous and wondrous creation.  But sometimes we can’t leave it at that.  Taking a cue from our increasingly secular culture, we look at the sky and wonder if we’re really alone in the universe.  After all, if Earth is the only habitation for living things in such a vast universe, “it seems like an awful waste of space.” (spoken in the movie, Contact

So how do we approach this question as Christians?  Is there life out there waiting to be discovered?  Could there be other planets with intelligent beings like us, needing redemption?  And how does the Bible fit into all of this?  Unfortunately, many Christians blindly accept such notions of extraterrestrials without much objection.  However, I will argue that if the Bible is true, and Christ did rise from the dead, and that he will return again one day for his own, then we have good reason to reject any notion of extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe. 

First, let me distinguish between extraterrestrial life (ET) and extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI).  The former is the more wide ranging term, including anything from basic life (such as a single-celled organism) to more advance life forms.  The latter is a more specific form of ET’s and refers to complex creatures capable of rational thought.  The distinction is an important one.  When most people think of extraterrestrials, they really have in mind ETI, largely thanks to Hollywood’s continual protrayal of ET life as humanoid beings (some of which even speak English, strangely enough). 

There are three areas of biblical truth that have a direct bearing on this subject.  One is the resurrection and ascension of Christ.  Another is sin itself and how it has affected the universe.  The third area is the Second Coming of Christ.  These are important issues in the Bible, and a correct understanding of each is fundamental to the Christian worldview. 

The Resurrection of Christ and ETI1 

There are many vital biblical truths that Christians embrace, but none is more important than the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.  Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection.  So what does this have to do with ETI?  If there are other moral creatures out there, couldn’t the resurrection include all of them as well?  Or have there been multiple deaths and resurrections, as Larry Norman intimated in his song “UFO”: “And if there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure that He must know, and He’s been there once already, and has died to save their souls”? 

The author of Hebrews writes: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”(1:3b).2  When Jesus, fully God and fully man, ascended into heaven, he sat down at the right hand of the Father, where he now rules and intercedes for the saints.  In light of this truth, the problem for ETI’s in need of salvation is how the Son of God, presently in his glorified body and seated in heaven, can redeem them from their sins.  Would he leave his present state and head for another planet in need of him?  If so, then it seems to follow that someone else would take his place as our mediator and high priest.  Yet Scripture states that “he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (Heb. 7:24, emphasis mine). But if he could leave, what form would he have to take?  Considering that currently he is the glorified God-man, would he need to leave behind the human body in heaven—like an empty shell—descend as a spirit to another planet, take the form of another creature, live a perfect life, die for the sins of that race, and rise again as a glorified ET?  If so, how would this work in relation to his present task as our mediator considering that now there would be two glorified bodies to deal with?  Some might argue that the Son could remain at God’s right hand yet still go to another planet to redeem those creatures.  The idea is that he could be in more than one place at one time.  But this does nothing to answer the above questions, nor is the questioner demonstrating a biblical or even workable understanding of incarnational theology.  In addition, the thought that the Son could be in heaven interceding for Earth while at the same time on a distant planet (or two!) dying another death seems strange, if not downright bizarre.  There is simply too much theology we know to be true that would have to be overcome. 

But couldn’t there be other ways of redeeming ETI’s?  Should we place a limit on ways God can redeem other sinful creatures?  But we must trust Scripture which declares that God is holy, and that when rebellion and sinfulness occur his justice must be satisfied.  Forgiveness of sins, biblically, cannot occur by a mere wave of the hand and proclamation of expiation.  Rather, there must be an accounting, a death: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22b).  Furthermore, only the eternal Son of God can accomplish such a feat.  For only if God himself enters the scene in the form and likeness of the sinful race, lives a perfect life, and dies in the stead of that race, will his own justice be satisfied and sin truly propitiated (cf. Rom. 3:20–26). 

The Groaning Creation 

There is also a universal aspect to human sin on this earth.  When Adam sinned, all of the created order was changed.  We read in Romans 8:19-22:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 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. 

We know from this scripture and elsewhere that humanity is not what it should be.  Not only do we have this sinful nature permeating our thoughts and actions, but also our bodies’ age and deteriorate rapidly.  We have aches and pains, get illnesses and diseases, and eventually die.  Similarly, the rest of creation experiences this same kind of deterioration.  Just as we groan, desiring the redemption of our bodies, so also does the rest of creation groan.  We can draw from this that the creation, indeed the entire cosmos, was once as we were, free from corruption to decay.  Therefore, just as we will experience a physical transformation to an incorruptible form, so also will the universe.  This too makes Earth central in God’s plan, and makes ETI very unlikely.  

The Second Coming of Christ

So what will happen when the sons of God are finally revealed?  This will occur when Christ returns.  In his second letter, Peter writes:“the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved” (2 Pet. 3:10).  Believers should live holy lives “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Pet. 3:12).  Notice a couple of things:

First, it certainly appears that the Second Coming of our Lord is closely tied in with the burning of the elements and heavenly bodies.  Obviously, this event would have a significant impact upon other planets and their intelligent inhabitants! 

Second, the coming of Jesus is said to be “hastened” by the saints.3 If so, then it certainly seems logical that the Second Coming and the reforming of the Earth, along with the melting of the heavens, is predicated upon the lives and prayers of earthly believers – not Martians, Klingons, or any other assorted ET creatures.  Therefore, the plan of God in bringing redemption to his people is unique to the planet on which we now reside. 

Third, the Second Coming takes place in accordance with God’s plan concerning Earth and its inhabitants.  Not only has the whole created order (included the other galaxies) been brought low by earthly sin, but the very redemption of the created order will take place when Christ returns to Earth.  Though a small planet in the solar system, even tinier in the Milky Way galaxy, and less than a blip within the whole universe, Earth is actually the most significant place in the entire universe.  For it is here, and only here, that the Maker of the cosmos has placed those made in his image. 

In view of these passages from Hebrews, Romans, and 2 Peter, it is clear that all of the created order was “subjected to futility” and will someday be redeemed from its present state of decay.  This decay was brought about by the fall of mankind, and will only be remedied by the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which will accomphish the “revealing of the sons of God.”  These verses do not allow for the inclusion of ETI.  

Many other passages and theological issues could be cited4, but these few will suffice to argue against the existence of ETI, the primary problem being that of sin and redemption.  Although it is my conclusion that the existence of ETI is highly unlikely, the existence of ET in general, meaning microbial or even unintelligent animal life, is within the realm of possibility and does not necessarily pose a threat to the Christian faith.  If there is such life, there would be good reasons for its existence, though it is unclear what those purposes could be.

In the next post(s) on this topic, we will discuss scientific reasons ET life (let alone ETI) is unlikely, along with the idea of the universe being “wasted space.” 

References and Notes:

1.  The idea that the resurrected Christ and ETI poses a theological problem was first introduced to me through a classroom lecture at Boyce College by Dr. Hal Ostrander.

2.  Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

3.  Does the idea that believers hasten the Day of the Lord conflict with what Paul said in Athens that the Lord “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31, emphasis mine)?  Not at all.  The Bible presents God as completely sovereign over all things, along with the fact that he controls what will happen through the actions of people.  In other words, God uses means to achieve what he has purposed to occur.  Those means include the prayers of his saints.  The interaction of divine sovereignty and human freedom is a difficult one, but we can be confident that our prayers do in fact change things, and that God does use them to, paradoxically, hasten what he has fixed from all eternity.

 4.  Another interesting issue is Satan’s place in the discussion of ETI.  Would other planets have their own devil, or does Satan rule everywhere—a universal devil?  Hebrews 2:14 states that the devil’s power, death, has been destroyed.  Has it been destroyed everywhere, or only on earth?

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