May 3, 2016

Threescore and ? — Beginning the last lap

Mike Head Shot 1

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

• Psalm 90:10, KJV

• • •

Well, I’ve gone and done it. Used up my threescore.

Today I turn sixty years old.  If we think of life in twenty-year-long laps, I’m starting the last lap. If we think of it as a game, I’ve reached the fourth quarter. According to Psalm 90, I’ll only make it all the way ‘round the track again or complete the contest “by reason of strength.” Yet the “strength” he mentions includes “labour and sorrow.” Lighthearted guy, that Moses.

Solomon could be a downer at retirement parties too.

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

• Ecclesiastes 12:1-8

Oh boy, so much to look forward to.  You can’t fool me with all those metaphors, Solomon. You’re talking about what it’s like to get old, to see your body break down, your teeth fall out, your strength wane, and your eyesight and hearing fail. “The days of trouble” are coming, and you are not optimistic that they will yield me pleasure. Spoilsport.

Even Jesus spoke about old age in a way that must have made Peter want to check out early.

 “Very truly, I tell you,” he warned his disciple, “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).

The text goes on to say that Jesus was talking about Peter’s death. But, believe me, I’ve been around enough elderly folks to know that what he said can be a pretty accurate description of life for many of them before they reach the end. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: the child becomes an adult and then a child again. Hand over the controls.

Whaddya mean, I can’t drive anymore?

Mike Head Shot 2

On one of his better days, when he was teaching people far younger than I, Solomon either found or passed along a much more hopeful proverb.

But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
which shines brighter and brighter until full day.

• Proverbs 4:18

Unlike other portions of scripture, which suggest that we are moving toward sunset, the diminishing of light and the onset of darkness, this word of wisdom sets forth another possibility. Life, long and abundant, may be lived entirely in the fresh and growing light of morning! Our path may begin at dawn and culminate when the noonday sun has reached its zenith, shedding its light and warmth over all the earth.

Our pilgrimage, however long it may be, may grow brighter and brighter until the most brilliant moment of all, when “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).

Now let me issue a caution. We must hold this word, like all wisdom sayings, lightly, and not think of it as an ironclad promise, a guarantee that our lives will get better and better, easier, and more pleasurable as we age. That we will not suffer or face the normal, seemingly random and often unfair mixed bag of experiences all human beings face.

We will. And I have no way of telling you how it’s going to go and how it’s going to end. Run as fast as possible from anyone who proclaims to you that they can.

Nevertheless, I find something here in which to take hope. Something for which I can pray. Something for which I can at least pursue in my inner being as the body slows and becomes more fragile over the years.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

• 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

One more lap to go. One more quarter left in the game. If by strength.

I’m aiming toward the light.

Mondays with Michael Spencer: May 2, 2016

Clouds, Photo by Roman Vanur

Clouds, Photo by Roman Vanur

Note from CM: On Mondays, we are hearing some of what Michael Spencer had to say on the subject of eschatology — the last things. Today, here are three questions about “The Rapture,” answered by the iMonk, in which he shows that the doctrine is novel and has no biblical support.

• • •

1. What exactly do you mean by the rapture?

If the advocate means that when Christ returns, those who are alive will meet him in the air, that is not, in and of itself, the problematic doctrine. Scripture clearly says this.

The full dispensational teaching, however, is this:

Christ will return twice. Once secretly, with the saints, in the air to retrieve the church (both living and bodies in the grave;) and again, publicly, to judge the earth following a seven-year tribulation period.

If the advocate simply means that Christ will return once, and separate the church and the world at his appearing, and then proceed to judge and establish his kingdom, then even those of us who may have issues with the specifics of that eschatology would probably have little interest in debating the Biblical merits of the rapture.

The text above says that when Christ returns, there will be a separation. Nothing in the text implies the tribulation or a later, second, return of Christ. It is describing a single event, and is completely compatible with the idea of one return of Jesus.

But if the advocate is indicating that we must believe in two, separate comings of Jesus, with different characteristics, and a seven-year tribulation, then there will be many reasons to say this is not taught in the text in Luke or anywhere else in scripture.

The passages cited above could be applied to either interpretation, so the advocate should be clear what he/she means.

These passage do NOT prove two returns of Christ; one private, one public, separated by seven years.

(In fact, N.T. Wright has convinced me they do not refer to the traditional “Second Coming” at all, but that is another post.)

2. Where does the Bible clearly and plainly teach that Christ will return twice?

This is a key question that rapture advocates need to consider carefully. Note Paul’s words in II Thessalonians 1, regarding the very public return of Christ:

2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

The text is clearly telling the Thessalonians what will happen at the return of Christ. Paul is NOT talking about a secret rapture/tribulation, but a public return/judgement/reward. On “one day” there will be punishment and reward.

Even passages that are repeatedly cited as being about the two-stage rapture are not describing a “secret” event.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

How can this passage be describing a secret event? The kinds of gymnastics that must be applied to say the “cry,” “shout,” and “sound of the trumpet” are part of a secret event are simply not welcome in good interpretation. Holding on to such an interpretation instead of the plain meaning of the text proves that a presupposition is being protected from the text itself.

Nowhere does Paul tell the churches under his charge that Christ will return twice in the dispensational, two returns scenario. He teaches that Christ will return once, publicly, for judgement and reward. Advocates of the two returns scenario must construct Biblical evidence, because there is no single verse that says Christ returns twice.

Further, the idea that God would give a seven year “warning bell” to those who do not believe is an alien and bizarre notion. Consider the implications if this is indeed the case, and every preacher must say that all unbelievers have seven years of warning before the “real” day of judgement arrives.

Advocates of the rapture should admit that not a single text clearly teaches the novel idea of two returns separated by seven years. It is simply not there.

This is important in the third question:

3. Why is the two-stage rapture theory not taught by any major Bible teachers in the broad history of Christianity?

The two-stage + tribulation rapture theory is not mentioned by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards or Spurgeon. It is not taught by the Puritans or the Catholic Church. It is not part of any classic Christian confession. All believed in one return of Christ.

Why is this? The advocates of the two-stage rapture need to admit that if the great teachers of the church have not found this doctrine, it is a recent innovation.

The actual history of the two-stage return of Christ teaching has been uncovered and published by David Macpherson. The origin of this teaching in a visionary experience by Margaret Macdonald, and its subsequent acceptance into American Evangelicalism by way of Darby and the Scofield study Bible, is an interesting and necessary account to learn. The two stage rapture is an innovation without Biblical support, with a pedigree that should absolutely shock many of those who promote the rapture most vigorously. It is highly ironic that an anti-Charismatic like John Macarthur advocates a doctrine that originated in “charismatic” visions by an end-times prophetess who would be a star of TBN today.

The propagation of this idea in books, music, sermons and novels may have caused most American evangelicals to assume that the Bible teaches the entire rapture-tribulation-return scenario, but the success of the doctrine does not make up for its absence in scripture or Christian history.

Advocates of the two-stage rapture ASSUME that it is the proper interpretation of the Luke texts and other texts. It is a PRESUPPOSITION, and not a conclusion based on what scripture teaches.

I do not believe the two-stage rapture theory is a serious error or a matter of separation, but I do believe its message has many insidious effects on western Christians. They mythology of the rapture is used to promote all kinds of false and manipulative teaching in the church. It is a creation of the enthusiasts, propagated by the evangelical fringe and marketed by the booksellers and publishers for the sake of the its “exciting” story line. I have seen much bad fruit come from it, and I have serious questions about its effects on our mindset about missions and reformation.

Careful students of scripture and those who respect the views of the teachers/confessions of the church that have come before us more than the visions of the “Scottish Lass” or the notes of the questionable C.I. Scofield will take an honest, second look at this doctrine, and let scripture, not American evangelical publishers, have the final word.

• • •

Photo by Roman Vanur at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen: May 1, 2016


Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, Photo by Thomas Hawk

Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen
On the Eucharistic Life

On the remaining Sundays in Eastertide, we are contemplating some words from Henri Nouwen on the eucharistic life. Our main source will be his book, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life.

• • •

Today, Nouwen focuses his attention on the part of the Emmaus Road story where Jesus approaches the two men and begins talking to them. In the course of their conversation, he explains the scriptures to them and how they relate to the events they had recently experienced with regard to Jesus’ death.

Then something happens! Something shifts. The stranger begins to speak, and his words ask for serious attention. He had listened to them; now they listened to him. His words are very clear and straightforward. He speaks of things they already knew: their long past with all that had happened during the centuries before they were born, the story of Moses who led their people to freedom, and the story of the prophets who challenged their people never to let go of their dearly acquired freedom. It was an all-too familiar story. Still it sounded as if they were hearing it for the first time.

The difference lay in the storyteller! A stranger appearing from nowhere yet one who, somehow, seems closer than anyone who had ever told that story. The loss, the grief, the guilt, the fear, the glimpses of hope, and the many unanswered questions that battled for attention in their restless minds, all of these were lifted up by this stranger and placed in the context of a story larger than their own. What had seemed so confusing began to offer new horizons; what had seemed so oppressive began to feel liberating; what had seemed so extremely sad began to take on the quality of joy! As he talked to them, they gradually came to know that their little lives weren’t as little as they had thought, but part of a great mystery that not only embraced many generations, but stretched itself out from eternity to eternity. (p. 39f)

Would that all of us who preach and hear sermons this Sunday could give this report about what we speak and hear!

This passage is one of the best summaries I have read about what the reading and preaching of the gospel should be and do for us.

  • Clear and straightforward.
  • Telling an ancient, yet ever new story.
  • The voice of the living Jesus himself speaking through the readers and preachers.
  • A word that places our lives in the context of God’s story, lifting us up into the great eternal mystery.
  • Offering new horizons of faith, hope, and love in which we may participate.

“For all that matters is that the Word of God be given free reign to uplift and quicken souls so that they do not become weary” (Martin Luther).

• • •

Photo by Thomas Hawk at Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Saturday Ramblings, April 30th, 2016

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Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen: April 24, 2016

Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen On the Eucharistic Life On the remaining Sundays in Eastertide, we are contemplating some words from Henri Nouwen on the eucharistic life. Our main source will be his book, With Burning … [Continue reading...]