The Tribulation of the Cross, Part 2

When we read Matthew 24:13 – “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” – what do we think of?  I’m currently reading a book about the life of Queen Elizabeth I of England that focuses on her life before becoming Queen, and there is a lot that reminds me of Matthew 24:9-10, which says, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another.”  Elizabeth’s older sister Mary, a Catholic, pursued often violent methods to purge the country of Protestantism[1], as chronicled in the sensational book, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs[2], which soon became the 2nd most-read book in England after the Bible.  John Foxe listed story after story of Protestants being tortured, burned alive, and persecuted in other extreme ways that sometimes are what we think of reading Matthew 24:13.

But there is more to the context than that.  Matthew 24:11-12 say, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”  This idea of love growing cold is immediately before “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”  In a martyrdom scenario, enduring is not the same as living, so enduring means something other than staying alive.  So, what does a Christian endure in order to be saved?

When Jesus was on the cross and said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” in Luke 23:34 I believe He was modeling this endurance.  On the cross, the lawlessness of the world had increased to the point where God Himself was abandoned and killed by a populist mob, fueled by a conspiracy of religious and political leaders.  All of Christ’s followers were scattered like sheep without a shepherd, yet He continued to love.  Yet, instead of calling upon an army of angels and freeing Himself from the cross, He forgave.

Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that while lawlessness is increasing, “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.”  Jesus said in Matthew 24:6 that “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.”  In opposition to this, false prophets will tell us to be alarmed and they will tell us that there is so much lawlessness that we need to do something other than love God and love our neighbor.  Some of these prophets will claim to be the Christ (Matthew 24:5), but they will insist on a path other than that of the cross.  Perhaps using a Facebook post fed through a heartless algorithm, they will say “The time is coming when good people will have to do bad things to very bad people,” even though Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  (Matthew 5:44)

Repeating yesterday’s post, when I’m struggling to face the world as I see it, I ask about 3:16, “Exactly which world did Jesus love enough to die for?”  The answer is this one.  Not just the part of it I get along with or that I’d pick to be in my Facebook feed if I had full control.  Sometimes bearing our cross is just being willing to love those Christ loved, even when we don’t want to, and even when they hate us as they hated Him.

Praise God that Christ loved me, because I too easily find people I’d really prefer to stay away from, but if Christ had taken that approach, maybe He would have never come down to earth to die for me.

Father, forgive us, for we do not know what we do.  We praise You that You endured to the end for our sake.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:32


[1] At other times and places, Protestants have persecuted Catholics, or each group has fought among themselves.  This is only one example among (sadly) many.
[2] I’m planning a history post for next March 20, the first publication date of this book in 1563.

The Tribulation of the Cross, Part 1

Do you ever get so frustrated with the world that you just want to check out?  I certainly do.  For example, as a blogger who posts to both Facebook and on WordPress, for me it is a lot easier to keep up with WordPress, since I can choose to see only what I want to see.  Facebook, on the other hand, exists to sell advertising and sometimes the best advertising is the kind that sparks emotion – even (or especially) bad emotions.

While Facebook is great for keeping up with friends and family, it recently started adding a ton of posts with statements like “The time is coming when good people will have to do bad things to very bad people,” along with other sarcastic, angry, and bitter political posts.  After a few days they must have tweaked their method again, and most of these went away.  Like many, I like to have my comfortable space where I’m in control, and I didn’t want to be on Facebook while knowing they were trying (and, sadly, succeeding) at manipulating my emotions.  I started feeling sarcastic, angry, and bitter, which was by their design.  Sometimes I ask myself why I am even there?

Some surprising advice comes in Philippians 2:6-8, where Paul writes about Jesus that, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  In times when I want to check out from the uncomfortable parts of living in this world, these verses remind me that Jesus, as God, might have taken an attitude of preferring to stay in a comfortable space where He could be in control, but instead He jumped into the mess that is this world we see every day to show the world what love is.

Another verse that calls this to mind is the familiar John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

When I’m struggling to face the world as I see it, I ask about 3:16, “Exactly which world did Jesus love enough to die for?”  The answer is this one.  The world He died for is the one where sex, anger, bitter tribalism, and political partisanship sells.  The one with a lot of sarcastic, angry, and bitter people.  The one with a lot of people who are more like us than we’d usually like to admit.  The one where it’s easy for our love to grow cold if we focus on the problems, and not on the cross, where God took the punishment for all of it.

To be continued tomorrow

Three Blessings to Count Today

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

Some say that grace stands for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, but what are these riches?  David says at the end of Psalm 144 that:

Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall!
            Blessed are the people whose God is the LORD!”

The desire of the Lord is to bless His people, in part in this world, and fully in the next.  The verse above follows verses 12-14, which list three specific blessings: family, prosperity, and safety:

May our sons in their youth
            be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
            cut for the structure of a palace;
may our granaries be full,
            providing all kinds of produce;
may our sheep bring forth thousands
            and ten thousands in our fields;
may our cattle be heavy with young,
            suffering no mishap or failure in bearing;
may there be no cry of distress in our streets!”

Knowing God is no immediate guarantee of these things, but we may ask Him for them, and know that when we do receive them, they come from Him.  He has paid for our riches and our blessings in full on the cross, so that in Paradise we will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), be eternally His family (Ephesians 1:5), and our pain and tears will be wiped away forever (Revelation 21:4).

Today, count these blessings, praise God for them, and pray that His people will hope in His provision forever!

What Was the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ Really About? – History Bit for July 21

Some events in history bring a faint glimmer of memory to many people, but what they remember may not be the most relevant point. One such event was the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” decided on July 21 in 1925. What actually was this trial? Wikipedia’s summary[1] is that “a high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. The trial was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, where it was held.” The trial descended into theatrics and was covered by national news organizations. Time magazine called the trial a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war.” Each side had a famous lawyer seeking publicity: the Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times, was the prosecuting attorney, and the agnostic Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.

The immediate result of the trial was that Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a small fine, but years later, that’s not what people remember.  For some, the lesson of the Scopes trial is simple: “science good; religious fundamentalism bad.”  Another group of people might think the lesson was: “religious fundamentalism good; science bad.”  But did the case conclude either of these things?  It didn’t, so what’s the real issue?

The Culture Behind the Scopes Trial
In the background issues were simmering which still linger today – whether religion should have a voice in how science is used and taught.  Tim Keller notes that “Few people remember…that the textbook Scopes used, Civic Biology by George Hunter, taught not only evolution but also argued that science dictated we should sterilize or even kill those classes of people who weakened the human gene pool by spreading ‘disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country.’ This was typical of scientific textbooks of the time.”[2]  Wikipedia notes that “Scopes was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he incriminated himself deliberately so the case could have a defendant.”  So, the trial did not hinge on Scopes’ teaching, this textbook, or even eugenics, but the subject of eugenics sheds some light on how over-simplified the take-away of “science good; religious fundamentalism bad” really is.

Geneticist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, popularized the term “eugenics” from the Greek, meaning “good birth,” to describe ways humans could use evolutionary science to improve their condition.  He usually left unspoken that he meant not specific humans, but some abstract sense of humans in aggregate, and also that he meant to improve the condition of those humans in charge, or those humans with a voice among the humans in charge.   These beliefs were not rare, but quite mainstream.  Joseph Loconte, writing of the culture J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis lived in[3], notes: “In Britain, the Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907 to take up the cause.  By 1913, the American Genetic Association was established in the United States to promote the doctrines of racial purity.”  The United States was actually the first country where compulsory sterilization was legalized, and some practices implemented by Nazi Germany were lifted right out of laws used by U.S. States.  U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Three generations of imbeciles is enough” in defense of Virginia’s sterilization law.

The church was not entirely immune from the eugenics movement either.  According to Loconte, “Ministers in the Church of England held a Church Congress in 1910 in Cambridge, inviting several members of the Royal Commission on the Feeble-Minded to participate.”  Also, “By the 1920s, hundreds of American churches participated in a national eugenics sermon contest.  As the Rev. Kenneth McArthur, a winner from Sterling, Massachusetts, put it in his sermon: ‘If we take seriously the Christian purpose of realizing on earth the ideal divine society, we shall welcome every help which science affords.’”

This background to the Scopes Trial, often simplified to a “science” vs “fundamentalism” debate, makes us ask: which science and which fundamentalism?  Was eugenics, for a moment, part of “religious fundamentalism” for some of the church?  And is perfecting society on earth truly a fundamental Christian belief?  With a rule of thumb of “science good; religious fundamentalism bad,” or the opposite, what do you do if a scientific idea becomes also central to religious belief?

Also, if you take away science and religion from the equation altogether, which is better: “all humans have dignity and are worthy of care and love” or “some people deserve to be neutered like an ordinary animal”?  If science is the only source of our “fundamentalism,” where do we turn when it insists on destruction for the less favored?  Tim Keller argues that “Secular, scientific reason is a great good, but if taken as the sole basis for human life, it will be discovered that there are too many things we need that it is missing.”  What is missing is a meaningful reason to love your neighbor, regardless of their scientific knowledge, religious belief, disability, economic impact, level of intelligence, or any other characteristic.

It’s Not (Entirely) a Fantasy
Loconte says that although Tolkien and Lewis wrote of fantasy worlds populated not only by men, but also by elves, dwarves, orcs, and many other races, the topics of eugenics and other Progressive Era ideas served as background.  In Tolkien’s epic The Lord of The Rings, the solution to conflict between the races was not for one race to rule the others, or (even worse) to eliminate them.  Instead, the answer is to utterly destroy the Ring of Power, representing the desire of any tribe to use power to rule others “for their own good,” as some say.  While Tolkien insists his story is not a direct allegory, he may have been thinking of the centuries of tribal conflict between the English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh.  Or the conflict between any group of conquerors and the conquered.  By using fictional races, Tolkien was arguing that this lesson applies to everyone, in all places and at all times.

Therefore, when scientific fundamentalism says it’s OK not to love some people, Christians need to respond without exception that every person is a creation of God with innate dignity and should be loved as Christ loved us.  However, as shown on the cross, power is not the answer.  As Jesus told his disciples in Mark 10:42-45 – “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

God does not expect us to understand every issue of history, or even in our daily news feed, which is increasingly a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war,” but when we all meet our Lord in heaven, He will say “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” – Matthew 25:40


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial
[2] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  This post draws from pages 12-13.
[3] Loconte, Joseph.  A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918 (2015).  This post draws on pages 15-19.

A Called-Out People – Psalms of Ascent #7

After another long pause, we return today to the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), used as a liturgy for ancient Israelites traveling to Jerusalem for annual worship festivals.  The last post covered Psalm 122, where David wrote of the joy found in the house of the LORD in Jerusalem.  Next comes Psalm 123, which discusses the attitude of the journeying pilgrims to that LORD, and the attitude of the world to them as a result.  Here are the first 2 verses:

A Song of Ascents.

To you I lift up my eyes,
            O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
            look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
            to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
            till he has mercy upon us.”

Earlier in Psalm 121, the pilgrims lifted up their eyes to the hills, away from their circumstances, to seek the Lord and His help.  Here, the Psalmist emphasizes the Lordship of the Lord, who is “enthroned in the heavens.”  His people look to him as “servants” to “their master”, or as a “maidservant” to “her mistress.”

While the idea of treating the Lord as an actual lord to be served should be obvious, it often isn’t, even for our Biblical “heroes.”  In Acts chapter 9, when Jesus confronts Paul (who was still a self-righteous Pharisee called Saul) about persecuting Christians, Paul responded by saying “Who are you, Lord?[1]  Apparently stricken by the miraculous light and voice, Saul somewhat ironically calls Jesus Lord before he even knows it is Jesus, and while he was on the way to threaten and arrest Christians.  In Acts 10, Peter answers a command from Jesus by saying “By no means, Lord,”[2] as if basing his disobedience on the very lordship of the one currently telling him to do something!

Right up to modern times, the Lordship of Jesus remains hard to accept.  We would rather accept Jesus as Savior than as Lord, but the God who is one is also the other.  The two cannot be separated any more than I can ask my boss to keep giving me raises and time off, while I insist on ignoring my job.  If I wish for God to save me, but have no interest in what He wants to save me to, I might as well say “By no means, Lord,” or “Who are you, Lord?”  If I wish to live for eternity in a world without sin, I need to agree that the Lord can define sin and that sin, especially my own sin, is bad.

While making the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and reciting the Psalms of Ascent, the Israelites would testify to the other nations that 1) God, as Lord, does not take disobedience lightly, but also that 2) He has provided a solution to their inability to serve Him, as symbolized in the temple and its sacrifices.  Similarly, believers today gathering on a regular basis are a sign to the world that salvation is only to be found in another place, through sacrifice, and that it’s worth the effort to go there.  Since the time of Christ, God’s people have been called the “ekklesia,” a Greek word translated as “church” in the English New Testament.  “Ekklesia” literally means a “calling out” – a call into the kingdom of God under the Lord of that kingdom, and out of the kingdoms of the world.  This new kingdom brings hope for a future world with no sin, bought by the sacrifice of One Eternal, Perfect High Priest on a dirty cross.  In that world there will be no liars, no deceit, and no war.  No evil of any kind, or in any degree.

Therefore, church – even if only a few are gathered together – should be a place dedicated to reminding us of the sacrifice required, and provided, to give us this hope.  It should be committed to “preach Christ crucified[3] because “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.[4].

The ancient Israelites could seek help in many hills, but there is only one LORD.  All hills are part of our world’s circumstances and can only provide us with more of what we already have, except for one hill.  Our help comes from this hill in particular – the one called Calvary on which Christ was crucified.  But the Bible also says: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,[5] and Psalm 123 ends with:

“Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
            for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough
            of the scorn of those who are at ease,
            of the contempt of the proud.

The kingdoms of the world, and those who have faith in them, have contempt and scorn for those who follow another way.  When we return to this series, Psalm 124 explains that our Lord has not left us alone.  In His mercy, He provides us help and comfort as we await the coming of His kingdom in its fullness.

Amen.

If you’ve missed the earlier posts in the Psalms of Ascent series, the first post is here, and each post links to the next at the bottom.


[1] Acts 5:5
[2] Acts 10:14
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:23
[4] Acts 4:12
[5] 1 Corinthians 1:18