About Me

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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Sacred Task of Interpretation

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:14-15, ESV)

Right now on facebook there is a game going around in which you are given a riddle and challenged to answer it via private message to the person giving it. If you answer correctly, nothing happens. If you answer incorrectly you are asked to place a giraffe in your profile picture. (Spoiler Warning: the answer is below). The riddle is:

3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It's your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?
Now, assuming you understand that the jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese are elements meant to misdirect you, you realize that there are two possible answers, and which one you arrive at is determined on how you interpret the sentence, “What is the first thing you open?”

If you read the paragraph in a linear fashion assuming that the question finds you at the moment of decision upon discovering unexpected visitors (where the question actually falls in the paragraph - The doorbell rings and you wake up…It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast, What is the first thing you open?), the answer is “the door.” If, on the other hand, you read the sentence as a summary observation of the whole and the “first” refers to what you open first at 3:00 am when the process begins (“The doorbell rings and you wake up, What is the first thing you open?), the answer is “your eyes.” Both are a correct interpretation of the sentence, though they are very different conclusions.

And herein resides the problem of interpretation. Words mean something, but when put in relationship to other words, those possible meanings expand. In our example above, the issue is an innocuous bit of fun mind-gamesmanship. But when we are dealing the Bible; something that is at the heart of what we as believers base our whole life on, the decisions we make can have a big impact.

In writing to Timothy in 2nd Timothy, Paul challenges him to confront his people about the message they are proclaiming in their words and actions. He instructs them to be careful not to “quarrel about words;” a problem that had a long history in the church in Ephesus apparently (1 Tim 6:4). The people were committed to getting it right, but had trouble maintaining perspective in what they were debating because they forgot the centrality of love for God and love for each other that should guide all of our discussions (this would apparently continue for several decades in Ephesus…Revelation 2:1-7, esp 2:4). Paul says in order for Timothy to combat this he needs to model three things: (1) A desire to please God above all others. (2) A work ethic that was so expressive of integrity on every level that Timothy didn’t have to worry about it being a distraction. (3) An ability to interpret the Word of God without distorting or abusing it. Paul’s words, however, are not just for the pastor, they express wisdom for all believers.

We need to avoid quarreling over words – fighting over things that really don’t advance the aims of Christianity. We need to be driven more by a desire to honor and please God than by man’s approval, or by winning an argument – this manifests itself in humility, not one-upmanship. We need to be living our lives in such a way that when we draw conclusions from Scripture, our own lives don’t become an avenue of undercutting the point we are making. And we need to be interpreting the Word of God without distorting or abusing it.

I won’t go into the steps of interpretation here; they are appropriately outlined in a number of places – Holy Spirit, usage, context (both literary and historical), genre identification, and logical consistency. But I do want to emphasize the importance of the work behind it and the need for compassion in disagreement.

Not all interpretations are equal. Just because a person, even a believer, interprets a text that does not mean their interpretation is valid. There are boundaries to proper interpretation found in the steps listed above and the person who refuses to follow those steps, should not be granted the same hearing as someone who does. In 2 Peter, Peter warns, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. (2 Peter 1:20, ESV)” Now, there is a lot in this passage, but first and foremost is the idea that we cannot simply do with a text whatever we want or feel led to – we are constrained by other Scripture and by the authoritative interpretation of the Apostles (which is expressed in Scripture). I don’t believe this text means that we have to wait for the Church to interpret a passage for us, but I do believe that Peter is outlining the high standard by which we must interpret Scripture. Spirituality is NEVER expressed through laziness!

No one has the sole corner on interpretation. The Bible is an ancient book; and although it is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), that antiquity creates gaps that must be overcome in order to interpret a passage correctly. The open riddle example I started with illustrated how sentences might be properly put together to come to two very different conclusions. When you add in centuries old idioms, written in a different language, to a very different culture, the barriers to proper interpretation grow exponentially. It is on our shoulders therefore to work through those barriers, but also to be understanding if that journey takes us to a different location than someone else. This is not to say there are no correct or authoritative interpretations – consistency and a preponderance of biblical revelation on any subject builds (or takes away from) any conclusion one draws from the text.  But it is a call to humility in our conclusions and compassion in our differences.

In the end, as Paul tells Timothy, it is about diligence in what we are responsible for and wisdom in what we do or do not argue about…because ultimately it is truth of the Word that we want front and center, not ourselves.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Burden and Blessing of Prayer

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, ESV)

A few years ago, while working on my worship book, God laid on my heart the place of sorrow in worship. While working through the Psalms, I discovered that of all the forms of worship represented in the songs of Israel, the most common was the lament. When I considered this reality, as well as numerous New Testament passages that talked about the grief of the worshipper, and I compared it to what passes for worship in a lot of churches today, I had to ask, “Where is there room for sorrow?”* While more liturgical traditions have times for expressions of grief and sorrow, Free Church traditions rarely, if ever, do. Of course, a lot of this may take place in the Bible Study hour, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But I believe that we send the wrong messages to people if we never make room for such expressions in corporate worship. So, what I began to do was to set aside time during our morning services, every once and a while, simply for prayer. I ask all members to pray silently where they are and I invite anybody present to come forward and share what is on their heart with me and then we pray together. This past Sunday was one of those days.

As we entered into the time, people came forward to pray. As we prayed, I was struck by the heavy burden that so many are carrying… sickness, financial problems, family struggles, spiritual issues, and so much more….living in a fallen world brings with it a lot of pain…even for (or perhaps especially for) Christians. After the time together, I returned to my seat. I was weeping. I was weeping for three reasons. I wept over the weight of what I had just experienced and I wept over the reality of how lightly I had often taken prayer. I regularly pray for members, for my own family, and for friends all over the world. But there are times when I just go through the motions; there are times when I forget promises to pray for someone; there are moments when I forget that what I am doing is bearing a brother or sister’s real burdens and taking to the throne of a mighty God, who alone can deal with the hurt.

But I was also weeping because of the awesome privilege that the time of prayer granted me. It is a privilege because of whom we are praying for. To count any person (sometimes otherwise strangers) as brothers and sisters is an amazing honor. It is a privilege because of what we are praying for. That someone else, anyone else, would entrust us with some of their deepest hurts and greatest needs communicates a closeness and a trust that should inspire and encourage. It is a privilege because of whom we are praying to. To be able to call the Creator of everything, “Abba; Father” and to enter into a conversation with Him with boldness is beyond description (Rom 8:15). The privilege of prayer allows us as limited, frail individuals to access the unlimited, robust God who invites us to lay our unbearable burdens upon Him and to let Him bear them for us (Matt 11:28).

Given prayer’s role as both responsibility and privilege, what can we do to more effectively pray for those around us?

~ Learn not to take any request lightly: Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.” I want to turn that around – any concern that is big enough to be a burden, is big enough to turn into a prayer. We need to remember this for ourselves and for those who bring us their concerns.

~ Pray at the moment of request: I learned a while back that unless I am absolutely pressed for time at that moment or if circumstances otherwise prevent it, to no longer simply say I will pray for someone when they give me a request. It is too easy to forget to pray and, even if you remember, the opportunity to express real concern and connection is lost.

~ Remember to have designated times of prayer on a regular basis: I wonder if part of our problem in remembering to pray for someone else is that we don’t have a regular time of prayer to begin with. Not only does making prayer a regular part of our lives strengthen our overall prayer life, it provides the trigger we need to remember those requests that have been given to us.

~Remember that praying is always tied to thanksgiving: Most laments in the OT move toward a resolution of thanksgiving – not necessarily because God has moved in the circumstance the way the person praying hoped He would, but because God is good and it is this recognition that moves us through any circumstance. When accompanied with thanksgiving, bearing the burden of another in prayer, becomes a restorative movement towards the greatness of God instead of a wearying exercise that leads us farther away from Him.

May God help us all to grow more passionate in prayer as we “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2, ESV)

*I have addressed this situation somewhat previously in this blog.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

But What About You?

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. (Galatians 6:3-4, ESV)

Last week I wrote on the inter-relationships of my immediate family and how each of us had an important role to play in the health of our family. I used this as a jumping off point of observation concerning my church family and the same phenomenon being present within it – something God Himself ordained and designed to be true. Many people noticed that in my description of my siblings and their personality, gifts, and contributions, that I omitted myself. My response to that observation has been that I don’t know if it was humility or pride that kept me from such inclusion. Truth be told, I believe it was certainly the latter, rather than the former.

Personal evaluation can be quite difficult for anyone. This is especially true for believers. By nature, we struggle with the call to self-denial and humility that is at the heart of so much of our walk with God. Pride, being the very essence and origin of our estrangement from God, weighs heavy on our mind. So, when we come to the matter of self-evaluation we battle with knowing if the lens we view ourselves through is even remotely appropriate. Self-denial is not the same as self-denigration, and humility is not the same as self-loathing…yet those are the extremes we sometimes want to take our evaluations.

In Galatians 6, Paul talks about the mutual reliance of believers on each other. He states that in order to achieve this we have to not think too highly of ourselves. But he also emphasizes in verse 4 that we can find satisfaction (reason to boast) in who we are and what we have done in, through, and because of Christ. That is, we are able to live with clear conscience before God because of how His presence has been manifested in our lives (cf. "For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you" (2 Corinthians 1:12, ESV)). This truth suggests that there is a sense in which we can carry out proper self-evaluation...but how?

I believe there are several steps we can take in this process:
- Refusing to compare ourselves to others - Let’s start with Paul’s own instructions in Galatians 6 “in himself alone and not in his neighbor.” Paul instructs his listeners to find the worth and value of their deeds in their own relationship with Christ, without comparing themselves to others. The logic of this advice is obvious – comparing ourselves to others will inevitably lead to a faulty evaluation – either because we see ourselves as better than we are because we “not like them” or because we see ourselves as unusable because we don’t have the talents/gifts another person has. God has gifted us all to His own purpose and design…seeing ourselves through that lens is a portion of what it takes to understand our value and our limits.

- See our strengths and gifts as something God has given. The Bible constantly points to the fact that every good gift comes from the Father…our life comes from the Creator, our salvation comes from our Savior, our provision comes from the Provider. We cannot grow too arrogant about any gifts we may possess, if we first understand they are GIFTS.

- See even our “quirks” as something God can use. We all have those traits that we identify as less than ideal. More often than not, these are the parts of us that most cause us to devalue ourselves. But I believe that they are traits that when placed in God’s hand, can help us to see our value in/to His work. Moses was stubborn – God turned this man who would argue with a burning bush into a man who would stand before the most powerful man in the world at the time and say, “Let my people go!” Saul/Paul was obsessive about getting the job done. God turned this pursuer of His people for death into a pursuer of others for Him, creating the greatest church planter the world has ever seen. Whatever trait you are troubled by, see it through the lens of the One who can accomplish great things through those who are His and surrender it all to Him.

- See our value not in how we view ourselves, but how the One who made us and knows us best views us. True self worth is not found in our own esteem, but in the esteem God holds for us.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says ‘Well done,’ are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’”(Mere Christianity)

A sinner saved by grace is no longer characterized by the doubt, fear, shame, and guilt that marked His sinfulness; but instead is known by the freedom, humility, value, and boldness that emanates from the grace that covers him. He is finally truly able to love and be loved and in that knowledge and from that perspective, we can begin to truly evaluate ourselves.

So what about me in my family? Well, to be honest, I am not really certain. My siblings were out of the house before my formative teenage years and I moved away from home at 17 to go to college and have yet to reintegrate in a meaningful way into the family dynamic. I am only physically present with them about once a year, so it is hard to say exactly where I fit into the greater tapestry of who we are together (yes, I recognize the blog post that could be made based on this truth about being unable to know who you are and what your gifts are if you are never present at church!). In most of my life (and at church) I am the teacher, explainer. Whether we are talking about conflict resolution, bringing understanding about others and about concepts, or plotting a course toward the future, I function by teaching. This trait has come out at times among my siblings in a variety ways, but there simply isn’t enough of a sample to say that is my niche. So basically, among them, I would say I am the follower (it may be the only time in my life that I am). It’s a necessary role – everyone has someone they can push around :-). I have worked hard to get where I am in life and I take satisfaction in the results of that hard work, but when I go home, I am just “baby brother” – and I enjoy that status. In my family, I am able to love and be loved - and at the end of the day I would say that is who I am!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The One Time Sibling Rivalry is Good!

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:9-10, ESV)

My dad grew up with nine other siblings in his house; my mom had six. Growing up, I often wondered what that must have been like to have to navigate life being responsible to and for so many other people. I was blessed with two brothers and a sister, but there is such a large age difference between me and them (they are 11, 10 and 8 years older than me) that, at least growing up, I felt like an outsider. Oh, there were still moments where I experienced sibling rivalry, sibling protection, and sibling provision, but it really wasn’t until I got older that I really began to see the how uniquely and wonderfully we all fit together.

Each of my siblings has a distinct personality and role in the family. One is the protector of each of us. If any of the others is not exactly “friendly” to another, they are the first to call them out for it. Another is the level headed one. There is not much that flusters or upsets them. Then there is the button pusher. They know just what to say to get to the other (even occasionally, the level-headed one). Now, such a mix could indeed be caustic and volatile. It is not too hard to imagine how those traits could lead to an unending stream of fights and anger. But what binds us together is that our parents instilled in each of us a sense of personal responsibility, familial responsibility, and above all else love. And so, traits that might lead to resentment and division serve only to strengthen and unify. The protector functions to make certain that each of us feels appreciated and a part of the family. Because the level headed one is so even-keeled, they help us as a group be that way too. And because of our love for another (and their clear love for the rest of us), the button pusher is really more about keeping us all humble and helping us not take ourselves too seriously than about making us angry.

When you consider who the Church is supposed to be, the picture should not be all that different. We are a mix of different backgrounds, personalities, traits, and perspectives. This mix can often be caustic and volatile, and if we are not careful can (and has) lead to division and damage. But it can also be beautiful and transformative when we remember we have a Father who binds us together; who has called us to familial responsibility, personal responsibility, and above all else genuine love! I think it is significant that the only competition between believers outlined in Scripture is the competition to “outdo one another in showing honor.” That is when sibling rivalry is a good thing!

The Church ought to portray the best part of what it means to be brothers and sisters and we do that by genuinely competing to see which of us can better pur others before ourselves. The world will tell us that an individual cannot survive if he or she is not looking out for themselves. But the Word of God tells us that until we die to ourselves, we will never experience life. And there is no more readily apparent expression of dying to ourselves than to be able to relate to the differences present in the body of believers by showing love and putting others first. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).

I guess in reality I don’t have to wonder what it is like to navigate life being responsible to and for so many other people – I experience it every day as a part of the Family of God.

A picture of the four of us...from a few years ago...

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What would you do to win an argument? The Nephilim in Numbers 13

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33, ESV)

What would you do to win an argument? I don’t like to be wrong…I don’t imagine most people do. And so, at times, when I have realized that I was losing an argument, I have entered into what I like to call “creative discourse.” That is, if I can’t win, perhaps I can at least “limit the damage” by taking the discussion in an entirely different direction or introduce something that clouds the waters enough that I can back out gracefully. I am not proud of this and I believe God is really helping me to mature out of this practice…but more on that below.

Last week I introduced the subject of the sons of God and the daughters of man in Genesis 6:1-4. I mentioned that the Nephilim’s purpose in that particular passage seemed to me to be to accentuate the dark times in which the events preceding the Flood took place. I also noted that I believed the phrase “in those days, and also afterward” all refers to eras before the Flood…that is, that there is no indication in Genesis 6 that the Nephilim as an actual creature survived the Flood. Now, I intend to revisit these Nephilim to discuss their possible identity and to better understand their use in Genesis 6 and in their other mention – Numbers 13.

First, what/who are the Nephilim? The term probably means “fallen ones,” but that really doesn’t help us much – fallen from what; into what? The KJV translators translated the word nephilim as “giants.” This is primarily because the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Old Testament dating to just before the time of Christ, chose the Greek word gigantes as the translation for nephilim. But the problem here is that there is no linguistic reason to interpret the word as meaning “giants.” The word itself doesn’t break down to mean that (etymology). It is not related to, or similar to, words in other languages that mean “giant” (cognates). The only reason the LXX translators made this connection was because they understood Numbers 13:33 to be equating nephilim with the people who were of great height and their apparent link with the sons of Anak. I would argue, however, that there are several problems with such a connection:

1) The sons of Anak, for all their size, were still human. To understand them as the physical descendents of the Nephilim (in this theory also humans) is to suggest that a race of men survived the Flood besides Noah and his family.

2) The Nephilim are not listed in any genealogical context in the Bible as a people group or nation.

3) The reference to the sons of Anak seems to be a later gloss by copyists as it is not present in the earliest or the best manuscripts.

4) Even if we accept the reference to the sons of Anak as original, the phrase translated “who come from” in the ESV is not a necessary translation. There is just one word behind the phrase in the Hebrew, and it is a preposition (notoriously difficult to translate in ANY language). This word can mean “from”, but can also just as properly mean “are a part of.”

Therefore, the translation “giant” is not something we can have much confidence in as there is no linguistic argument in its favor and the one contextual argument in that direction has many holes in it. Also, it may be possible to link them to the mention of other similar creatures/persons in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, such as the Sumerian Annunaki, but there is simply too little evidence to be able to do so.

What we can unequivocally say about the nephilim is that though we are not given any specifics about their appearance, we can tell from both contexts in which they are mentioned that they are clearly frightful and evil.

Who exactly were the nephilim? I don’t know. And that is a part of the problem. Scholars want to be able to speak with authority, so they will buy into a theory sometimes simply to avoid saying they don’t know. Believers want clear answers about the Bible because we for some reason feel insecure if we don’t have ALL of them. The situation is further complicated by the reality that people of all stripes are attracted to the unknown and the possibility of possessing special hidden knowledge that others have missed (there are no shortages of conspiracy theories and urban legends in all walks of life). All of this, I believe, has led to a lot of conclusions not supported by the Scriptures and to a lot of confusion about the nephilim and their role in the two places they appear (and even to some bizarre theories trying to link them to extra-terrestrials).

What I believe I can say about them is they were actual creatures (or persons) of some sort who developed a terrifying reputation prior to the Flood. I don’t believe the biblical evidence anywhere demands that they survived the Flood. I believe both these realities led to the term nephilim being used in two distinct ways in ancient Israel – both of which appear in Numbers 13:33.

The first way of using the term is in the symbolic or representative sense. In this usage, the memory of the nephilim carried on in the post-flood era so that the term became synonymous with any type of terrifying creature or persons (quite similar to how Hitler has become a term we apply to any type of evil tyrant). I believe this is expressed in the parenthetical explanation given by the biblical writer concerning the relationship of the sons of Anak to the nephilim. I would translate that phrase something like “the sons of Anak are a part of the Nephilim.” In other words, the writer is telling us the sons of Anak (who were giants) are of a class of creature or person who in their day would have been understood as a modern day Nephilim (all giants [int this case, the sons of Anak] are Nephilim, but not all Nephilim are giants).

The second way of using the term is in the superstitious or popular sense. In this usage, the term refers to frightening hidden or unseen creatures or persons that the culture as a whole assumed the continued existence of (something similar to how we would use “the bogeyman”). To simply mention the presence of the nephilim was to instill an irrational fear in people – especially if one is talking about an unknown realm. This is what I believe is happening in the spies' speech of Numbers 13. If you look at the discourse preceding the mention of the nephilim, you notice that there is an argument going on. The twelve spies have returned and are giving their report. On one side, ten spies say Israel won’t be able to take the land. On the other side, Joshua and Caleb say that Israel can take the land. They both agree the land is overflowing with good things and that the opposition present is significant (Numbers 13:27-29). But Caleb (and Joshua) argues the land can be taken, while the other spies say it cannot (Numbers 13:30-31). As the argument continues, the other spies’ report changes: the presence of the giant sons of Anak switches to ALL the people being large and the good land suddenly becomes a land that devours its inhabitants (Numbers 13:32). Then to seal the deal, the spies say, “And oh yeah, the nephilim are there too!" Not surprisingly, the passage reports that on hearing this all the people cried and wept and would not go up (Numbers 13:32-14:1).

It’s a classic arguing position; the “ace in the hole” so to speak…that concept or argument that when used correctly, wins every time. I believe it was dishonest… maybe not technically, since the sons of Anak were considered a type of nephilim. But in every way that really matters it was. The spies knew, given the people's fear of the nephilim, that using the term would sway the people and all they cared about was winning the argument.

So back to the original question…what would you do to win an argument? We like to play semantics and to operate under technicalities when it suits us…especially if it means winning an argument. But such an approach to arguments dishonors God and undermines our credibility and integrity.

As I said, God has been really dealing with me in this area of my life and has shown me that my commitment to winning arguments is really a result of insecurity in who I am and a lack of faith in who He is. I have learned that I need to grow in my trust of Him so that the outcomes are not something I need to worry myself with. I understand that I need to humble myself so that the threat of losing is seen for the inconsequential outcome that it really is. And I have seen that I need to control myself so that my integrity and God’s reputation is not undermined in the eyes of others by my careless excess.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:19-24, ESV)