The 85 Year Old Giant Killer

raising the sailThe metal rolling door to the storage unit slammed shut and I fastened the lock. Even though we gave away half of the books in my library and most of our furniture — even though we had the garage sale to end all garage sales. It still seemed like we had way too much stuff. How much do we really need? For that matter, what do we really need? Pondering that question we said good-bye to our little dog Charlie, (He’s staying with our daughter Holly in San Diego) and dropped our old sailing cat, Phoebe, at the kitty hotel. Then we drove north and pulled in to a beautiful country house to stay with friends and collect our wits for a week.

I know God has an exciting life planned ahead for us, but it would sure be comforting to know a little bit more about it. However, I suppose that wouldn’t be “walking by faith” would it? Still some details would help settle my anxious mind. I’m sure Abraham and Sarah had similar thoughts on their way to the Promised Land.

Please pray for us — now more than ever! Some exciting possibilities are unfolding and I’m always up for a good adventure and that reminds me of the story of Caleb (Joshua chapter 14).

After six long years of war, it was time to divide the Promised Land. The people were looking forward to a time of peace and settling on their land, their inheritance. The Israelites gathered at Gilgal, their center of operations about a mile from Jericho and five miles from the Jordan River. There they would be assigned their new homes, but after six years of war, the hill country still wasn’t conquered. The giants (Anakim) lived there in “great fortified cities.” No one wanted to live on the mountains.

Just then Caleb appeared among the people. It was his birthday! He and Joshua were the only two people to cross over the Jordan River of those who had begun the journey over forty years before. By rights, he should have had the first choice of the land and what would the old man choose? A shady glen where he could finish his days in peace? No! Listen to his speech to the people:

“And now, behold, the Lord has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the Lord spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old. I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming.” (Joshua 14:10-11)

And then Caleb’s fiery request, “Now therefore give me this mountain!” (verse 12, KJV)

Why? Why would an eighty-five year old man ask for such a challenge? Because Caleb wasn’t done yet! Caleb knew growth comes during difficult times and in the midst of foreboding challenges and Caleb never stopped growing. Besides, Caleb trusted God – the Giants didn’t have a chance!

Self-Control

Santa Teresa's Bow

Climbing the Eight Rung Ladder

Perhaps there is no virtue harder to practice than “self-control.” Sometimes it seems like our very bodies conspire against us (Romans 7:14 ff.). Who doesn’t wrestle with cravings? “Just one more cookie” has been the downfall of many diets. From a more serious perspective, drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling are all very real addictions that war against us. We desperately need to learn self-control so let’s open God’s Word and find some help as we reach for the fourth rung of Peter’s Eight Rung Ladder (2 Peter 1:5-7).

There are many Greek words in our New Testament that are translated “self-control,” but the specific word Peter choses to use in 2 Peter 1:6 is relatively rare. Paul used it in Galatians to describe part of the “Fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22, 23) and Peter uses it here to describe the fourth step:

5 make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love,” (2 Peter 1:5-7).

The final place we find this word in the New Testament is in Paul’s sermon to the Roman Governor Felix:

Acts 24:24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” 26 At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him.”

If there was one virtue Felix lacked, it was self-control! Felix had been a slave in Rome, but was freed by the Emperor Claudius and was actually appointed to serve the Empire as Proconsul of Judea. He was a man of appetites. A Roman historian, Tacitus, observed, “Antonius Felix practiced every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of a king with the instincts of a slave” (Histories, 5.9). He was married three times. Felix divorced his second wife and seduced the Jewish princess Drusilla, from Azizus, king of Emesa, when she was only sixteen years old. He needed to hear Paul’s bold sermon on “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment.”

So how do we gain control of our emotions and appetites? Peter gives us the answer in our text. Each of the eight virtues mentioned builds on the previous virtue. We begin with faith: what we believe, and put our faith into action with virtue: moral excellence – what we do. From this we gain understanding: “knowledge” and knowledge helps us learn self-control. Peter says, “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful” (v. 8). “For if you practice these qualities you will never fall,” (v. 10). Spiritual growth isn’t easy, but it is essential! Let’s keep climbing.

Understanding

Climbing the Eight Rung Ladderasa_john

As we climb the “Eight Rung Ladder” of virtues in 2 Peter 1:5-7, the third step is supplementing “virtue with knowledge.” The Greek Christians in Peter’s day would have immediately connected this step with their common proverb “virtue is knowledge.” We’ve already seen how growth begins with “faith” – what we believe – and continues with “virtue” – what we do. Now, as we practice our faith, our understanding grows. We truly begin to “get it.”

Let’s look at our text again as the Apostle Peter encourages us to “5 make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love,” (2 Peter 1:5-7).

What is this knowledge Peter is talking about?

Men are funny. When we get together we talk about “guy stuff.” We bat around terms that we have absolutely no idea what they mean. For example, in talking about old cars, guys might talk about “turning the rotors” on the brakes, “adjusting the venturiis” in the carburetor (we’re talking old cars) or “adjusting the bands” in the transmission. I have used those phrases, but I have absolutely no idea what they mean. I’m not alone. You probably do too. Who really knows what the “cloud” is? How broad is “broadband”? Where is the on-ramp to the “information superhighway”? So we may have a great deal of information and facts, but we’re still clueless.

Now let’s return to Peter’s instructions as we climb the eight rung ladder. The third phrase the apostle uses in this text primarily refers to “understanding,” the very word the Contemporary English Version uses in its translation of gnosis. The Greek lexicon defines gnosis as “comprehension or intellectual grasp of something, knowledge.[1] This meaning is more clearly illustrated later in 2 Peter where the apostle will encourage husbands to “live with your wives in an understanding way,” (2 Peter 3:7).

It will not do for us to just fill our minds with Bible facts. To have true knowledge, to truly understand, we must apply those facts. It is what we do with our knowledge that truly matters!

 

 

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 203). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Excellent Life

 

DSC_0086The Apostle Peter’s last letter is especially concerned with spiritual growth. He encourages us to “5 make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love,” (2 Peter 1:5-7). Last week we looked at “faith,” and this week we look at a word that almost defies definition, arete (ἀρετή).

A quick survey of the different English translations shows the breadth of meanings. The earliest English Bibles used “virtue” to translate arete (Wycliffe, Geneva) and more recent translations (RSV, NKJV) have revived that meaning. God’s Word uses “integrity” while the International Standard Version has “moral character.” Arete has been the focus of many recent business books on “Excellence” and the New English Translation uses that word. The Lexham English Bible narrows the focus a bit with “excellence of character” as does the New American Standard Bible and New Living Translation, “moral excellence.” Most of the recent translations (CJB, CEV, GNB, HCSB, NCV, NIV, NRSV, TNIV) simply read “goodness,” but I don’t think that adequately describes the virtue Peter is describing here.

The ancient Greek, Homer, uses arete to describe “consummate ‘excellence’ or ‘merit’” primarily in a military context, but later the term is used of “distinction for other personal qualities and associated performance that enhance the common interest[1].” Stoic philosophers observed, “all excellence lies in uprightness, and a good person is one who is upright.”

Lexicons define this virtue as “uncommon character worthy of praise.” It is such an uncommon virtue that it must be a “manifestation of divine power, miracle.[2]” In other words, we begin climbing the eight rung ladder by taking the first step of faith. As we grow in faith, God develops within us the uncommon virtue of moral excellence. This in turn provides the foundation for continuing spiritual growth. I like the description, arete is “performance that elicits praise.”

While the first step on the eight rung ladder, faith, is what we believe, the second step, arete, is defined by what we do. Christians influence the world by the excellence of our lives.

 

 

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 130). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Above.

An Eight Rung Ladder

Santa Teresa under sail in San Diego

2 Peter 1:3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

 

Peter promises us in the next verse, “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, if you want to be an effective, fruitful Christian, we need to garner these eight virtues. Think of them as an eight rung ladder. In the weeks to come, in this column, we’ll spend some time focusing on each of them.

Faith

The first step to take on the path to discipleship is faith. The word “faith” simply means “belief” and we need to be very careful because there are many different things to believe in and many different expressions of belief. For example, James says, “Even the demons believe – and shudder!” Their faith doesn’t do them any good at all! Why? Because their belief doesn’t lead to proper action.

So what kinds of belief are there? In Rubel Shelly’s wonderful book, Prepare to Answer, he describes some of them:

  1. A credulous belief has little to commend it. Some people believe the earth is flat, but that seems silly to most of us.
  2. Mere belief rests on flimsy evidence. As much as I hate to admit it, belief that the Padres will win the World Series seems like a mere belief.
  3. A substantive belief would take strong contrary evidence to change what we believe. “I believe George Washington was the first president of the United States” seems substantive. My belief rests on strong evidence.
  4. Of course there are mistaken beliefs. I’ve walked up to red Jeeps in the parking lot and put my key in the door only to discover, it wasn’t my car. I was mistaken.
  5. Finally, there are statements of personal faith. “I believe in Jan.” That statement is based on years of personal experience and trust.

So when you say, “I believe in Jesus” is that just wishful thinking (1 or 2)? Is it just a statement of fact as in “I believe Jesus really lived 2,000 years ago” (3)? Could it be a statement of misplaced faith (4)? No, Paul calls this the “Good Confession” (1 Timothy 6:12, 13). It is the realization that God has reached out to us in love and that belief opens a whole new world to us.

Faith is the first step. Let’s keep climbing the ladder together in the weeks to come.

Kind & Good

DSC_0086

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

— Apostle Paul, Galatians 5:22, 23

There are two virtues listed in the Fruit of the Spirit that are so close to each other in meaning that they must be dealt with as one: “kindness” and “goodness.” In fact, they can both be translated “goodness,” so what is the difference between the two words?

Goodness

Let’s start with the second word first (agathosune, ἀγαθωσύνη). Goodness can be harsh. When my little granddaughter asked for “more cookies please.” Her mommy said “No!” Charlotte had to be harsh to be good. When Jesus made a whip and drove the money-changers out of the Temple (John chapter 2), he was good but he was also harsh. God’s goodness can be strict!

Kindness

“Kindness” on the other hand is an easy and mellow virtue (chrestotes, χρηστότης). Legend says during the “silent years” Jesus the Carpenter made custom yokes for oxen. Later Jesus said:

Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus uses our word “kind” here when he literally says, “My yoke is kind.” William Barclay comments: “Jesus says: ‘My yoke fits well.’ What he means is: ‘The life I give you is not a burden to cause you pain; your task is made to measure to fit you.’ Whatever God sends us is made to fit our needs and our abilities exactly.”[1]

Jesus uses the same word to describe the good, old wine (Luke 5:39). “He says, “The old is good,” that is it is mellow. It isn’t bitter or harsh.

The Fruit that is Kind and Good

By combining these words as Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, the apostle is telling us to be good, which sometimes means being stern, but always to be kind.

Let’s illustrate these words with an example. We want to be good parents and sometimes that means drawing the line, but we are always kind, tailoring our discipline to the unique personalities of our children. Remember: there is no “one size fits all” in any relationship! We must be kind and good.

[1] Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 18–20). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.

The Sour Saint

John McKeelEveryone is familiar with the beautiful story of the Prodigal Son – the young man who leaves home angry, and squanders all his father’s money. Then “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17) and returns home to find forgiveness and redemption. You may not be so familiar with the story of his older brother from the very same parable (Luke 15:25-32).

It is said that when the older brother learned his younger brother had returned home and had received forgiveness from his father, the older brother became “angry and refused to go in” (verse 28). Now before we begin condemning the older brother, let’s remember he was the good son. He was faithful, hard working, and did a good job keeping the family farm in order. The father promised the older son “all that is mine is yours” (verse 31). The problem was the older son’s anger. Why was he so upset?

Physiologists tell us anger feels good. It’s part of our “fight or flight” response. Something happens and we just react. We don’t think about it and our body releases chemicals into our body to reward us. Dr. Jean Kim observed in Psychology Today (August 25, 2015): “anger can lead to similar ‘rushes’ as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.” The problem is anger has a way of side stepping our rational thought processes and it can override our moral and emotional brakes causing us to act in very uncharacteristic ways. We might feel good when we’re angry, but no one around us does!

Yes, but why was the older brother angry in the first place? The Bible says, “He answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’” (Verses 29, 30). The older brother’s underlying feelings of weakness and insecurity made him angry. He was unwilling to deal with his brother so he just exploded. Sometimes it’s easier to become angry than to patiently deal with the issues. Likewise, did you ever think the older brother might have been a little jealous of his younger brother? We don’t often admit it, but the lure of the “grass on the other side” is strong!

Finally, I also think the older brother was tired. While everyone else had gone to the party, he was still out in the fields working. We can easily imagine him up before dawn and home after dark toiling on the farm, but do you believe his father demanded all of the older son’s busyness or again, did his weakness and insecurity lead him into overwork and exhaustion? Was he overwhelmed by the responsibility and trust of his father, so the older brother drove himself to the point of exhaustion and consequent anger? Anger is often just tired trying to get out. We’ve all seen babies turn red and angry when they get too tired. Adults can be like that as well.

Whatever the reason, the older brother’s anger was keeping him from a relationship with his very own brother. His anger kept him from that most precious of relationships: family love.

So I’d like to imagine the same love that restored the younger brother to the family, restored the older brother as well. I can see the tears in both brother’s eyes and the beautiful smile on the father’s face to see both brothers’ restored. There is a little taste of heaven in this parable.

The Apostle Paul and the Snake

The life of Paul was full of hardships. In 2 Corinthians chapter 11, he recounts some of his story:

2 Corinthians 11:24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

And all this was before his shipwreck in Acts chapter 27! One of the trials that we often forget to list was after the shipwreck on Malta, dripping wet, Paul made his way onto the beach. There, in the rain and in the cold, the apostle along with some very sympathetic islanders, Paul made a fire to warm the survivors. In the process of gathering wood for the fire, a deadly viper latched on to his hand. In horror, the islanders expected Paul to instantly swell up and die (Acts 28:1-6).

The trouble for biblical interpreters today is, there are no poisonous snakes on Malta. So where did this snake come from and how did the Maltese know the viper was deadly? According to The Times of Malta (February 19, 2014) the islanders have several explanations.

One is that the preaching of Paul caused all the venomous creatures on the island to loose their venom. In fact, the enterprising islanders began selling powdered limestone from the island as a medicinal cure for poisonous bites! The Times wrote this is “proof of Maltese ingenuity rather than the efficacy of the medicines.”

Another theory is the snake was the Leopard snake, Zamenis situla, which is venomous in southern Europe but not on Malta. Of course the islanders would have known that so let’s look at another possibility for Paul’s viper.

Perhaps it was a snake that has since become extinct. That’s certainly a possibility, but there is no evidence that such a serpent ever existed on Malta either in the written record or in the artifacts.

A more likely culprit was the notorious horned viper, Vipera ammodytes. The snake is deadly and inhabits southern Europe and Turkey. It has been known to hitch a ride on ships and is an excellent swimmer or it could have ridden one of the planks from Paul’s ship to shore. The islanders, who often traded with the mainland, would have instantly recognized the viper by its horns (see picture) and reacted as Luke recorded in Acts.

The miracle of Paul’s survival may simply be the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, “they will pick up serpents with their hands; and … it will not hurt them,” (Mark 16:18).

The Horned Viper, V. ammodytes
The Horned Viper, V. ammodytes

Preparing for Worship

“We have met the enemy and he is us!”

Pogo, Walt Kelly’s cartoon character

Driving home after services I had to admit, “I just didn’t connect with the worship this morning.” We pulled up to a light and I continued. “The prayers seemed more like performances and the songs were so disjointed! On top of that, the sermon just didn’t seem relevant. I wonder why I even bothered to get up this morning.”

My sweet wife smiled that knowing-wife smile and chided me. “Maybe you were the problem. Did you take time to prepare for worship?” I sulked as I pulled away from the light and then had to admit, “You’re probably right. I hadn’t thought about that.”

So how do we prepare for the most important meeting of the week? Here are some suggestions that I have found helpful:

  1. Shift Gears. Early on in driver’s training, you learn to shift into a different gear when you start to climb a hill. Before we can truly worship God, we must take a moment to “shift gears” and center our thoughts on Him.
  2. Discover the Power of Gratitude. “Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven.” As you are preparing for worship, take a moment to appreciate the gift of grace.
  3. Drop Your Inhibitions. A lot of people are afraid of their own voice. They are too self-conscious to sing. We have so many wonderful singers at Canyon View it can be tempting just to sit back and listen but the Lord loves a “joyful noise” and who are you to argue with God?
  4. Tap into the Fellowship. There is an energy in corporate worship. Have you felt it? It’s always there but sometimes our “receptors” are out of order. Reach out and tap into the power!
  5. Confession is Good for the Soul. Sin and guilt make it hard to worship. Confess your sins by name and feel the power of forgiveness.
  6. Be Filled with the Spirit. Paul told the Ephesians (and us) not to get drunk on wine “be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 5:19, 20).
  7. Finally, expect great things! What you receive from worship is equal to what you put into worship. If you expect the singing to be bad and the lesson to be boring, I suspect that’s what you’ll receive but if you come expecting great things I promise you’ll receive even more blessings that you anticipated.

DSC_0086

Sour Wine

66796main_overcash1_medAfter a night without sleep, countless beatings, a Roman flogging and now hanging from nails on a cross, Jesus was nearly dead. What we don’t think of though were the little pains: the hurt of the taunts, the sweat in his eyes, the raging thirst. The fifth of the Seven Last Sayings of Jesus is but a single word in Greek: “I thirst,” (John 19:28).

By this point, Jesus was approaching the end. The soldiers at the foot of the cross heard and saw it all. Jesus didn’t die like other men. The first thing he said from the cross was “Father forgive them,” and the second was a promise to the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Even the battle-hardened centurion would have been touched as Jesus entrusts his mother’s care to Jesus’ best friend. The cry of desperation in the language of his childhood, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would have haunted them. Thus when Jesus said in a dry, course whisper, “I thirst,” one of the soldiers rushes to wet his lips with their own “sour wine.”

Why is this saying – actually only one word in Greek – recorded for us to meditate on? Jesus wasn’t play-acting on the cross. He didn’t just say this to fulfill prophecy and he wasn’t asking for pity. It reveals his humanity.

This word was a prayer, but not to God. It was addressed to his executioners. There is a kind of pride that says, “I will never ask you for anything!” But Jesus still had faith in humanity – even as they were taking his life. So what possessed an unnamed soldier to run to the aid of Jesus? Touched by Christ, the soldier shared what he had.

So what is “sour wine”? Were they sadistically giving a dying man vinegar? A quick search of the different English translations is revealing. Moffatt’s version and the Jerusalem Bible read “vinegar,” while Goodspeed, Phillips, and the New English Bible translate the word as “sour wine,” but I like the Today’s English Version and the New American Bible’s translation “common wine.”

Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible explains: “there were three pressings. The first was extracted by stomping on the grapes. This made the best wine. The second took the must, put it in a bag and squeezed out the juice. The last took the leavings and boiled them to extract the very last. This was ‘common wine.’” The United Bible Society’s Handbook on the Gospel of John, a help for translators, explains: “The Greek word refers to a diluted, vinegary wine. Since it was cheaper than regular wine, it was a favorite drink of laborers, soldiers, and other persons in moderate circumstances. The translations ‘sour wine,’ ‘bitter wine,’ and ‘vinegar’ suggest that offering this drink to Jesus was an act of cruelty, whereas in fact it had the humanitarian purpose of relieving his thirst.”

Even in his death, Jesus won followers! “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:35).