Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Gifts for the serious Christian reader

Still need a Christmas present for a thoughtful Christian in your family or circle of friends? Let me suggest a few. On Sunday I mentioned John Owen's master-work equipping Christians to fight sin well: Overcoming Sin and Temptation. Similar, but more accessible, is Ralph Venning's The Sinfulness of Sin. Both are unparalleled in helping us understand sin, hate it and go after it to put it to death.

In the world of theology, some excellent books have been written this year. Two 2011 books I would highly recommend are Michael Horton's The Christian Faith. It is similar to Wayne Grudem's famous work but more integrated and personally written. Greg Beale also recently released A New Testament Biblical Theology. Beale's work, more than any other, has shaped my understanding of Revelation and how Old and New Testament eschatology fit together. I just started this book and am loving it.

Finally, if your friend loves books about the Cross and the gospel, let me recommend George Smeaton's The Apostle's Doctrine of the Atonement. Smeaton was a Scotch theologian in the 19th century and plumbed the depths of the atonement themes in the New Testament more than any other I've seen. If you don't take my recommendation for it, just consider that this is Jerry Bridges' favorite book. Enough said.

Happy reading!





Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Prophetic interpretive clues

Last Sunday's presentation of the picture of covenant blessing poured out on and through God's people in Micah four may have presented a new way of reading Bible prophecy for some of you. Though we may initially be inclined to interpret the image of a more glorious Temple (4:1), for instance, in terms of a literal, future building in the Middle East, reading such prophecies covenantally reveals a much richer fulfillment not only through Israel's return from the exile but also Christ's first and second comings as well as the ministry and mission of the church.

In his commentary on Micah, Bruce Waltke provides six interpretive clues for helping us understand and apply Old Testament prophecies of covenantal blessing. Hopefully, you'll find them helpful in your own study of Old Testament prophecy.

1. The NT taught that such prophecies found their fulfillment in Christ and His church (Luke 24:44, Acts 3:24, I Peter 1:10, etc.)

2. Prophets represent the new age under the symbols of the old age. Prophecies about events prior to Pentecost find a material fulfillment. With Christ's ascension from earth to heaven and the outpouring of his Holy Spirit from heaven to earth, and with the transformation of his body from an earthly physical body to a heavenly spiritual body, the earthly material symbols were done away and the spiritual reality portrayed by the symbols superseded the earthly shadows.

3. The plain, normal meaning of Old Testament worship primarily had in view the eternal heavenly realities behind the symbols. For example, the tabernacle was a pattern of the heavenly (Exodus 25:9, Hebrews 8:5) and through the pattern the priestly nation participated in the heavenly. In light of such passages as John 4:21-24, the Christian will set little value on the geography and regard it as a cultural adornment to a deeper and universal truth.

4. When Christ lowered heaven to earth, first at his advent and then at Pentecost, the otiose [obsolete] symbols were forever done away, leaving the reality unveiled - which was so much greater than the symbol (Hebrews 8:13, 9:26, 10:9).

5. To show the exceeding greatness of the future, the prophets supercharged the old symbols with larger-than-life imagery.

6. There is a temporal multidimensionality to these prophecies. They embrace a beginning of fulfillment in Israel's restoration from the exile, a victorious fulfillment in the church age stretching from Christ's first advent to his second coming and a consummation in the eschatological new heaven and new earth when Christ's Kingdom becomes coextensive with creation. [Some would add a future, Millennial reign of Christ and His church to these dimensions of biblical fulfillment].

- Bruce Waltke, MICAH, 678-679

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Learning to fight well

In Romans 6:12 Paul says that based on Christ's death and resurrection in our place we have both the power and incentive to make double war against sin and temptation. He writes, "Let not sin, therefore, reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions."

All of us can think of temptations which seem to dog us, enticing us to sin against God again and again. We may make some show of sorrow, regret and resolve not to do it again, but often, before we know it, we're back embracing that hateful sin.
According to the Puritan theologian, John Owen, our weak warfare, in part, lies in the fact that we fail to war against the very root of the sin. He writes,
"A man may beat down the bitter fruit from an evil tree until he is weary; while the root abides in strength and vigor, the beating down of the present fruit will not hinder [the tree] from bringing forth more fruit. This is the folly of some men; they set themselves with all earnestness and diligence against the appearing eruption of lust, but, leaving the principle and root untouched, perhaps searched out, they make but little or no progress in this work of [sin] mortification [i.e. killing]." - Of The Mortification of Sin, p. 76.
What kind of war are you making against the lusts of your mind, heart and flesh today? Are you merely going after the superficial fruit (e.g. resolving to stay away from Christmas goodies for fear of gluttony or the movie theater for fear of mental lust), or are you going to the root of your temptations (confessing your deep-seated rage at not being God and not having a world which revolves around your self-gratification)? In our fight against sin, let's target the source, make war against the root and apply theological herbicide to the temptations which lure us from the heart of God.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A testimony of God's grace

This week I will be quoting briefly from JC Ryle, that great English preacher of the 19th century whose few published books are worth more to me than a room full of gold. In his Autobiography, Ryle looks back to the days of his conversion in his early 20's and writes these inspiring words:

"It may interest my children to know what were the points in religion by which my opinions at this period of my life became strongly marked, developed and decided, and what were the principles which came out into strong, clear and distinct relief when this great change came over me … Nothing I can remember to this day appeared to me so clear and distinct as my own sinfulness, Christ's preciousness, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, the need of being born again and the enormous folly of the whole doctrine of baptismal regeneration. All these things … seemed to flash upon me like a sunbeam in the winter of 1837 and have stuck in my mind from that time down to this. People may account for such a change as they like; my own belief is that … it was what the Bible calls "conversion" or "regeneration". Before that time I was dead in sins and on the high road to hell, and from that time I have become alive and had a hope of heaven. And nothing to my mind can account for it, but the free sovereign grace of God."

May it be the same for us.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Facing suicide in God's family

Tragically, one of our brothers in Christ last night took his own life. Trinity Church, and Minot Air Force Base, is in mourning and the Kingdom of God on earth is bereft of a precious friend. Since the information may not yet have been released to his family, I am keeping his name in confidence. Nevertheless, you who knew him likely know of the loss. How are we, as believers, to think through and process the suicide of a fellow believer? It's a situation for which we are rarely prepared. One of the most helpful responses to the suicide of a believer was written more than twenty years ago by John Piper. I reproduce it here in full. For you who grieve today, may it bring you insight, peace and hope.

We need firm biblical ground under our feet at a time like this. And so I want to try to take the Bible, God’s Word, and unfold five truths that I hope will give you a firm place to stand in the coming days.

    1. Saints sometimes feel so bad that they want to die.
    2. It is sin to fulfill that desire by taking your own life.
    3. The only way sin can be forgiven is in our relationship to Jesus Christ by faith.
    4. Saving faith can be so weak that the heart gives way to grievous sin.
    5. Therefore let this death not be in vain: let it make us utterly committed to overcome the weakness of faith that cost him his life.

      1. Saints Sometimes Feel So Bad That They Want to Die

      Moses was under tremendous pressure from the people to take them back to Egypt. They were dissatisfied with his leadership. And God himself had sent fire against the people. Moses says, “I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness” (Numbers 11:14–15).

      Elijah had just endured the incredible strain of single-handedly opposing 400 priests of the idol Baal and the people of Israel and the king. God vindicated his faith, and he ran exuberantly for miles in front of the king’s chariot. Then he heard that the king’s wife, Jezebel, vowed to kill him. In his fear and exhaustion he went into the wilderness, sat down under a broom tree, and said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).

      The prophet Jonah displayed one of the most selfish attitudes of all the prophets in being irritated that God had mercy on the pagan city of Nineveh. And God rebuked him with a desert wind. “When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:8).

      Listen to the account of a young Christian graduate student.

      Although I have always been reasonably healthy, insomnia has plagued me from adolescence until now. Only those who are unable to sleep at night can appreciate the distressing toll this ailment takes on one’s life: the omnipresent sense of fatigue, the susceptibility to irritation, and the grossness of an unrefreshed mind. All through the university I struggled against a never ending torpor, mental and animal. Each night the disquiets of mind prevailed over weariness. And the more the tensions of graduate work mounted, the more I fought off the effects of insufficient sleep. One Friday afternoon, as I prepared for the spring language examinations, I emotionally exploded. Having lost sleep with such regularity, I lacked courage to face the future. My mind was like a mass of live rubber: continually expanding, it threatened to divide down the center. This would leave me powerless to cope with responsibilities in the university . . . Everything I conceived became a burden; every anticipated obligation threatened to impale me. Even so ordinary a responsibility as conversing with others overwhelmed me with consternation. Nor dare I conceal that fact that even suicide took on a certain attractiveness.

      This graduate student went on to become a great professor of theology. He wrote books that are among the most penetrating and moving I have ever read. But in the end he was found dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. The coroner wrote, "I find death undetermined whether Accidental or Suicidal." But those closest to him conceded that there was an addiction to the sleeping pills and that this was connected to his mental condition and "that dependency finally proved his undoing." If this beloved professor intentionally took too many pills, it would not prove he was unregenerate.

      Saints sometimes feel so bad that they want to die.

      2. It Is Sin to Fulfill That Desire by Taking Your Own Life

      Committing suicide is sin. For three reasons:

      1. First, it is disobedience to the command of God, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). And disobedience to God’s commands is sin.
      2. Second, it is presumption upon God’s sovereign prerogatives to give and take life. God alone can create a human person, and therefore personhood belongs to God. We have no right to dispose of ourselves or others as we please. The Lord has sole rights over what he has made. Murder and suicide intrude on the sacred ground where God alone is the giver and taker.
      3. Third, it is failure to trust in God for the help needed to survive and cope. And the Bible says that whatever is not from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

      Therefore, we are on firm biblical ground when we say: it is sin take your own life.

      3. The Only Way Sin Can Be Forgiven Is in Our Relationship to Jesus Christ by Faith

      Every one of us is a sinner. It doesn’t matter how many “good” things we do or have done. We have dishonored God by the meagerness of love to God and the shallowness of our trust in God and the inconsistency of our obedience to God. If we don’t find a way for our sins to be forgiven, we will be cut off from God forever, because God is holy and cannot look with favor on sin.

      Nor can he sweep sin under the rug as though the dishonoring of his holy name by our sin were of no consequence. It is of infinite consequence. And that’s why God sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to die for sinners.

      The prophet Isaiah foresaw this great sending of the suffering Messiah.

      Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)

      Jesus Christ came into the world and fulfilled this great Jewish prophecy by dying on the cross and becoming a curse for those who trust in him. “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

      His apostle Peter said, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). So the issue for every one of us is: do we have a relationship of faith with Jesus Christ so that our sins are forgiven? It is the most precious gift in the world. And there is no other way for a sinner to get to God than through the shed blood of God’s Messiah, Jesus Christ—by trusting in his name.

      No amount of good works can earn God’s salvation. And no amount of bad works disqualifies a person from God’s converting grace. A thief hung on a cross next to Jesus as he was dying. His life was one total waste of sin and unbelief. And in that last moment his eyes were opened and he threw himself on the mercy of the King of the universe and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus, with all the sovereignty of one who would not be defeated by death, said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42–43).

      In the eleventh hour a lifetime of sin and unbelief can be forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ.

      4. Saving Faith Can Be So Weak That the Heart Gives Way to Grievous Sin

      Or to put it another way, those who are truly forgiven for their sins and accepted by God forever can give way temporarily to temptation and fall into sin.

      The biblical evidence for this is:

      • The seventh chapter of Romans describes how Christians struggle with the remaining corruption in our lives: Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
      • Philippians 3:12: “Not that I . . . am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
      • 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive we ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
      • In Matthew 6:12 Jesus says we should not only pray for daily bread but for daily forgiveness too: “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”

      Saving faith can be so weak at times that the heart gives way to grievous sin.

      But this does not mean that the saving relationship with Christ goes in and out of existence with each of our sins. When a believer yields to temptation, his faith in Christ is weak and the enticements of sin and the power of Satan get the upper hand. But there is a great difference between Satan getting a temporary upper hand and Satan being the Lord of life. There is a great difference between yielding with resistance to an evil that I hate to do, and doing that evil as part of the usual pattern of my life.

      The evidence of the Master’s hand is the warp and woof of the fabric, not the snags in our thread.

      In the years of your friend’s unbelief he was like a captive in a concentration camp far behind the lines of Satan’s territory. Like all of us at one time or another, he had given himself over to the side of the enemy by refusing to trust in Christ. The result was a kind of numbness toward spiritual things.

      Then one day, it appears that Jesus set himself to penetrate the lines of Satan’s territory, break through the fences of the concentration camp, and shock him out of his stupor of unbelief.

      But as they were leaving the concentration camp, the sirens went off, the ensuing combat was fierce. The sword was knocked out of his hand and the shield slipped on his arm. And the deceptive dart of temptation sank so deep into his heart that he fell in the combat.

      And where was Jesus? We believe he caught him when he fell and carried him home.

      And if we say to Jesus, “You should have protected him while he was escaping,” I think he would say, “My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. You can no more grasp my wartime strategies than a child can read the graphs of the Chief of Staff. And remember, if I hadn’t broken through the prison of his unbelief, you would have never seen him again.”

      5. Therefore Let This Death Not Be in Vain: Let It Make Us Utterly Committed to Overcome the Enemy That Brought Him to the Grave

      • Give his death worth and meaning by letting it make you hate sin and Satan and unbelief.
      • Let it make you blood-earnest about spiritual things.
      • Let it strip you of unbelief.
      • Let it be his last loud cry against the dangers of the powers of darkness.

      What could honor him more than to let his death be a covenant between you and him, sealed with his own blood,

      • that you, from this day forth, will fight with all your might the enemy that brought him to his grave;
      • that you will wear the whole armor of God; and
      • that you will take the sword of the Spirit, the Bible, and practice with that sword so regularly, so diligently, so earnestly that you become valiant for the Savior who did not leave him blind, broke the prison walls of his unbelief . . . and caught him when he fell.

      Friday, November 11, 2011

      Eve's pain

      We're all familiar with the curse God placed upon Eve and all women who followed in her path. Genesis 3:16 says, "I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." Almost exclusively, we think about Eve's curse in terms of physical pain. Indeed, every mother will testify to the reality of that. Still, could there be more in this curse? I think so.

      One doesn't have to read far beyond Genesis 3 to discover more feminine pain bound up with Eve's curse. Chapter four showcases her eldest son's jealous heart inflicting its vengeance on his brother in fratricide. A mother's pain in childbirth may be great, but it is minimal compared to the agony of witnessing her children's sins - sometimes chronic sins that go on for decades and rip the family apart. How ironic: the sin which tasted so delicious (the forbidden fruit) came back to bite Eve - and all mothers ever since - perhaps most of all.

      Praise God, therefore, for the promise found in Genesis 3:15 implicit in God's curse upon the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between her offspring and your offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." Eve received the just desserts of her punishment in motherly pain, but in grace Christ (the ultimate Child) came to reverse the curse. One day every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4) and every redeemed woman (we trust Eve included) will say 'good-bye' to her motherly pain to the glory of God.

      Wednesday, November 9, 2011

      The key to vibrant prayer

      We are not desperate to pray because we are self-deceived. We are blind to our depravity. We don't see ourselves as we really are. Do you want to learn to pray more? Learn of your sin. Ask God to show it to you, to give you a glimpse of your need. Ask him to show you what your sin cost him. Look at the cross again and again until you can say, "Lord, I'm so sinful, so weak, so deceived. Please, God, don't let a day go by without reminding me of this. Make me dependent."

      Then, in faith, draw near knowing that you have needed cleansing but have been cleansed. Know that you have deserved wrath but have been fully loved. Sit down with your Beloved and hear him speak to you. Unburden your heart before him. Have fellowship with your heavenly husband. Be fully assured; he loves you when you pray, and he loves you when you don't. You're his bride when you hide from him, when you ignore him, when you think he doesn't really care. Run, now, to the lover of your soul.

      - Elyse Fitzpatrick, Comforts from the Cross, pp. 129-130

      Saturday, November 5, 2011

      Goodbye self-improvement

      The desire to change [is good] but it isn't exclusively Christian. Everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, wants to change. That's why bookstores are filled with self-help books and meeting halls are filled with people trying to overcome addictions to everything from gambling to pornography to shopping....But there's a problem here for us: self-improvement isn't a Christian construct; death and resurrection are.
      Paul wrote, 'For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.' (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
      God isn't interested in [our] self-improvement regimens. He isn't impressed by our resolutions to do better, to get those devotions in, pass out tracts, cut down on our online time by fifteen minutes every day, or fast from the shopping channels during Lent. In fact, he isn't impressed with us at all. He's impressed by his Son. He's impressed with the perfect life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ, his beloved Son.
      Here's the crux of the matter: you shouldn't hope to be impressed with yourself. Dead people don't worry about impressing others. They don't worry about anything. We need death and resurrection. We should be utterly and entirely impressed with only this: Christ died and was raised. His love was so powerful that he bent under the cruel tree, rested himself upon it, submitted to the hammer and spikes, swallowed his Father's bitter wrath, relinquished his life, and then by the power of the Spirit was raised again. All this for us! Now there's something to be impressed with!...We will not be able to fight victoriously against our sins unless we fight under the banner of the gospel and thereby detach ourselves from our hedonistic plans for self-improvement.
      - Elyse Fitzpatrick, Comforts from the Cross, pp. 120-1221.

      Thursday, November 3, 2011

      'Engaging' pornography

      Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, occasionally receives searching questions on Christianity and ethics from his students and parishioners. The following question by a distressed bride-to-be caught my attention. What biblically/theologically-informed advice would you give a woman in such a situation?

      Dear Dr. Moore,

      In the middle of my premarital counseling with our pastor, I found out that my fiance has had, what he calls, ongoing struggles with pornography. I was kind of floored by this because I hadn’t known anything about it until now. One of the things that drew me to this man was his call to gospel ministry....Can you help me know what to do? Should I just go forward, or what? How will I know that this is sufficiently addressed? And I don’t have much time because the wedding is right around the corner.

      Sincerely,
      Engaged and Confused

      Thursday, October 20, 2011

      Friday, September 30, 2011

      Race matters

      A few weeks ago the film The Help hit American movie theaters. It's the story of a young, intelligent, unprejudiced, Caucasian woman in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60's who becomes a voice for the many disenfranchised African-American housekeepers in the South by writing an expose of their lives and oppressive culture. One thoughtful, critical review of the film can be found here.

      In spite of The Help's valiant attempt to promote positive race relations by bringing us up close and personal with the plight of mid-century, Southern, African-American housekeepers, the film ultimately falls short of its fence-mending aspirations as it seeks to weave in Disneyesque, cutsey moments and humor which detract from the film's serious content. Also, numerous aspects of the film are simply historically implausible, like a book critiquing Southern white culture ever being carried and promoted in Jackson bookstores in 1964 (as the film displays). The Help also comes off as very two-dimensional, portraying the lead character as a freedom fighter who has completely left her racial prejudices behind (or never had any). Yet, as Christians we know too well the baggage, racial and otherwise, we all carry and use to subvert racial harmony. This film lacks the depth, complexity and seriousness which American race relations actually entails. Sadly, the result, I fear, is that many of my Southern, Christian friends who may need to apply the gospel more deeply to their racial prejudice, will see this film as just another attempt of ignorant, Northern, Hollywood-types trying to stick their noses in an issue they know little about. In that way, The Help, may in the long run do more harm than good.
      Rather than a superficial, entertainment-driven film about race, what we need is a thoroughly biblical, honest and theologically robust treatment of racism from a Southern born and bred Christian who's been surrounded by bigotry, felt it in his own heart and stood on the other side as the white father of an African-American daughter. That's exactly what John Piper gives us in Bloodlines. In this just released book, Piper tells his own story of growing up in a Christian home in South Carolina in the 50's and 60's. He also takes us into the pages of Scripture to see how God's great story to create for Himself a pan-racial church from every tribe, tongue, people and nation has the gracious power both to expose our hidden (or not so hidden) racism, and redeem our racially prejudiced private stories. Whether you were born in Scandinavian Minot and think you have no racial prejudice or come from the deep South and think you're beyond it, if you're a Christian in America, you need this book. So do I.


      Wednesday, September 21, 2011

      One nation under God?

      This week's sermon is going to briefly touch on the danger of Christian syncritism, particularly our dangerous penchant to 'Americanize/patriotize' the church. I'll be giving some examples, but consider the accompanying painting called 'One Nation Under God'. Jesus holds the US Constitution and is supported by the likes of our soldiers, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and JFK. As an American and a Christian, what are your thoughts of this painting in particular and 'Christian art' which paints the church in distinctly red, white and blue colors in general?

      Friday, September 16, 2011

      A taste of Covenant Theology

      Over the centuries, Bible scholars and theologians have recognized various ways of putting together the larger story of the Scriptures. One common way is distinguishing between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Another is distinguishing between the eras of Israel and the church. Back in June we surveyed the entire biblical story-line and broke it down into four 'acts' of the biblical drama: creation, fall, redemption and restoration.

      A very similar way to think about the entire biblical story-line is built upon the various covenants found in Scripture. Most of us are familiar with the five most prominent covenants, those God made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and the New Covenant made by Christ. Sunday's text in Hosea 6 hints about a sixth foundational covenant which stands in contrast to all which follow it: a 'covenant of works' which God made with Adam in the Garden of Eden. This covenant may be new to some of you, so I'm making available a one page overview of the covenant of works for you to read through in preparation for Sunday's message. You can access it here. Hopefully, it will prove helpful to better understand and appreciate your place in the New Covenant in which we stand today by grace.


      Tuesday, September 13, 2011

      Two words for the guys

      In the light of last Sunday's strong challenge from Hosea 4-5 for us men to boldly take up the mantle of responsible, spiritual leadership in the church and family, consider two opportunities:

      1. 4:6 challenged us to deepen our knowledge of spiritual truth. For some of you guys, that means working hard to become a reader of the best books - books which really challenge your mind and help you fully grasp biblical truth. Let me commend to you the best book I read in preparation for my Hosea series: Love Divine and Unfailing by Michael Barrett. It is not a traditional, text by text commentary. Rather, it is a thematic and theological overview of Hosea which helps explain the covenantal connection between Israel's sin and God's grace. Barrett also helpfully explains how Christ is front and center in Hosea. It is not a long book, but it is rich and beneficial. I think this book could give us men the tools we need to most helpfully explain and apply Hosea to our families and/or small groups.

      2. Taking spiritual responsibility for the women and children in our lives also means that when leadership needs are present in the church, it should be us men rising up and taking our places at the front of the line to serve. Among other places of service, that should be true for children's Sunday School. Out of our six classes planned for this fall, we only have teachers for three; and out of the eight teachers or helpers who will be dedicating their time to teaching, only one is a man. I'm thankful for the women leading our children, but where are the men? Guys, it's time to rise up, take responsibility and lead to the glory of God. If you're interested, please contact Wade Talley at wade.talley@med.und.edu or 721-2757.

      Friday, September 9, 2011

      Wondering about pagan cult prostitution?

      No, that's probably not what's been on your mind lately. Nevertheless, this week's sermon in Hosea 4-5 brings it up. Particularly, 4:14 indicts young, Israelite women and men for their participation in that depraved practice. Due to time constraints (and wanting to be sensitive to the younger audience among us on Sunday morning), I thought it best to briefly explain here on the blog what ancient, pagan cult prostitution was to help you better understand it whenever it comes up in Scripture - which, in the Old Testament, is rather frequent.

      The pagan nations surrounding Israel were polytheistic, i.e. they worshiped multiple gods. The most prominent gods worshiped were those believed to control fertility (human and agricultural) since their sustenance (via food) and continuance (via children) depended upon it. Two examples of pagan fertility gods with which Israel had contact were Ba'al (male) and Asherah (female).
      Ancient, pagan fertility cult prostitution worked like this: A formal shrine/temple or informal 'high place' or 'sacred tree' was set apart as 'holy' by the pagan priesthood. To the place of worship people would bring offerings (food, wine and sometimes children). These gifts were brought in order to compel the fertility god or goddess to bless the land and wombs of the worshipers with fertility. It was believed that the fertility of the earthly land and human womb depended upon the sexual activity of the gods. The more sex Ba'al and Asherah enjoyed in heaven, for instance, the more rain would fall, the more productive the ground would be and the more fertile human wombs would be.
      Consequently, pagan, fertility worship became bound up with encouraging the gods to 'get it on'. How to do that? So was born the belief that the gods were encouraged toward heavenly sexual activity by the corresponding earthly, human sexual activity between a worshiper and a priest/priestess/cultic prostitute. By the time of Hosea, pagan shrines were commonly equipped with a selection of young women or men who both received a worshiper's food/drink offering and made their bodies available for 'cultic sex' through which the worshiper could manipulate the gods to sexual activity which turned their fields/animals fertile as well as their wombs.
      So, in simple fashion, cult prostitution followed the following process:
      1. One's earthly fertility depended upon the gods' heavenly sexual activity.
      2. The gods' sexual activity was generated by sexual activity with a cult prostitute.
      3. Cult prostitution became a necessary part of creating a rich harvest and a full household.
      Of course, such cult prostitution not only exploited young men and women, leaving a wake of emotional, physical and relational trauma, it degraded marital sexuality and mounted a frontal assault against the worship of God alone, which looked positively boring and restrictive in comparison. The devil always has his substitutes. They often taste tantalizing, but once swallowed their poison runs deep and deadly.