Making sense of the Second Coming and Jesus’ words in Matthew 24

August 17, 2017

In preparing to preach on the Second Coming in last Sunday’s sermon (based on Peter’s warning in 1 Peter 4:7 that “the end of all things is at hand”), I read the most helpful book on the subject that I’ve ever read: Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.

His book cleared up confusion on my part concerning the so-called Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ “little apocalypse,” delivered to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, in Matthew 24-25 and its parallels.

What was I confused about? Something that N.T. Wright advocates in his commentaries on the subject: everything that Jesus says in this passage (and elsewhere in the gospels), which has traditionally been understood as pertaining to his Second Coming, isn’t about the Second Coming at all. Rather, it’s about the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

Now, before the “Wright Is Wrong” crowd start piling on, let me say this: Wright doesn’t for a moment deny the Second Coming. In fact, he affirms it loudly from the rest of the New Testament. He just doesn’t think that Jesus taught it prior to his resurrection. In one of his commentaries, he writes that the disciples couldn’t understand his predictions about his suffering, death, and resurrection. Why would Jesus further confuse them with words about his Second Coming?

So this makes Wright a “partial Preterist”: Jesus’ apocalyptic language has already been fulfilled.

While I see the appeal of this position, and it’s clear that much of what Jesus says pertains to the events of A.D. 70, I certainly don’t believe that this is all Jesus is talking about. In order to buy into the Preterism of Matthew 24, you have to interpret Jesus’ words in v. 30, “they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heavens” in a wildly figurative way: Wright says that when the Temple is destroyed, Christians will “see” Jesus and his glory in the sense of vindication: his warnings about Jerusalem, for example, in Matthew 23:37-38, and Israel’s failure to embrace his way of peace, will be fulfilled, and Christ will be glorified. Something like that…

So Jesus, in Wright’s view, “returns” in this figurative sort of way in A.D. 70, before he returns in a more literal way at the end of the age. In a sense, Wright teaches that there are two “returns” of Christ. And don’t most of us Christians—including Wright himself—fault our dispensationalist brothers and sisters for teaching that Christ returns twice—once for Christians and a second time after the Great Tribulation? Is Wright’s position really so different?

Regardless, as much as I respect Wright—and as much as I fear disagreeing with so fierce an intellect—his argument about Jesus’ “little apocalypse” sounds like wishful thinking. It sounds like he’s trying to solve an apologetic problem—namely, Is the Bible, or Jesus, wrong about the Second Coming?

Granted, his “solution” isn’t the worst I’ve heard. C.S. Lewis—speaking of Christian thinkers I admire—happily admits that Jesus was wrong. But that’s O.K., he says, because Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

So this is where Hoekema comes in: From his perspective, there is no problem. Not if we understand the way prophetic language works.

For example, I’ve struggled with two aspects of Jesus’ “little apocalypse.” First, if Jesus is talking about the end of the age and his Second Coming, why does his language focus so sharply on events in and around ancient Palestine?

On this point, Hoekema writes the following:

In this discourse Jesus seems to be describing events associated with his Second Coming in terms of the people of Israel and of life in Judea. These details, however, should not be interpreted with strict literalness. Herman Ridderbos has some helpful things to say about this:

… The prophet paints the future in the colors and with the lines that he borrows from the world known to him, i.e., from his own environment…. We see the prophets paint the future with the palette of their own experience and project the picture within their own geographical horizon. This appears in the Old Testament prophets in all kinds of ways. And in our opinion, this is also the explanation of Jesus’ description of the future. He follows the Old Testament most closely, and not only is the temporal perspective lacking at the end, but the geographical horizon within which the eschatological events take place is also restricted in some places to the country of Judaea or to the cities of Israel.

In other words, Hoekema writes,

Jesus was describing future events in terms which would be understandable to his hearers, in terms which had local ethnic and geographic color. We are not warranted, however, in applying these predictions only to the Jews, or in restricting their occurrence only to Palestine.[†]

My second problem with Jesus’ words about the Second Coming in Matthew 24 is how they blur so easily with his prediction about the fall of Jerusalem. Why does it seem so unclear, so confusing? But here, too, according to Hoekema, Jesus is following the pattern of Old Testament prophecies. He is employing “prophetic foreshortening.” I explained this idea in last Sunday’s sermon. I hope you find it helpful:

And on the Mount of Olives nearby, the disciples ask Jesus a two-fold question: “Tell us, when will these things be”—in other words, when will the Temple be destroyed—“and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” So the disciples have asked about the destruction of the Temple and the Second Coming. And in Jesus’ response that follows, he talks about both. And it’s often hard to tell when he’s talking about one event and not the other.

And that’s intentional: He’s saying that the Roman invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple—which took place in the year 70—reflects, on a much smaller scale, what God will do on a global scale when Christ returns. So he’s using the destruction of the Temple to make a point about the end of the age and the Second Coming. There’s a near-term fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and a long-term fulfillment.

Old Testament prophets do this all the time. Let me give two quick examples: In Isaiah 7, King Ahaz, the king of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, is being threatened by the Northern Kingdom and Syria. And he’s worried about whether his kingdom will survive. So Isaiah gives him a sign to reassure him that God will save him and his kingdom: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel.’” And before that child is grown, in a short time, those two kings that seem so frightening right now will be dead and gone, yet the Southern Kingdom will survive. Now, we don’t know the identity of this virgin and child to whom Isaiah was referring, but he’s describing something that will happen soon—a “near-term” fulfillment; the ultimate, long-term fulfillment, of course, would happen hundreds of years later, which is described by Matthew in his Christmas narrative

Another example is the Book of Joel: He talks about God’s judgment against Israel in the form of a plague of locusts that will produce famine in the land. And he says that the people can repent and be saved. But then he pivots from this near-term judgment of God to God’s final judgment—and our hope for salvation in Christ. The two events blend together. He uses a small-scale event to make a point about a much larger-scale event.

And Jesus does the same thing when he relates the destruction of the Temple to his Second Coming. When you read Matthew 24, it seems like the Second Coming will happen at the same time as, or shortly after, the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, but as one scholar says, it’s like looking at mountain peaks from a far distance: They look like they’re close together, but when you get up next to them, you see that they’re separated by many miles.

I emphasize this because I don’t want us to get discouraged and think, “The Second Coming is never going to happen! It would have happened a long time ago!” I don’t want us to lose confidence in God’s Word.

What are your thoughts? What questions or concerns have you had about the doctrine of the Second Coming?

Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 149.


Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 2)

August 15, 2017

Hillary Clinton and Bill Shillady

(To read Part 1 of this series, click here.]

Last week, CNN interviewed Hillary Clinton’s pastor, the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist, on the eve of the publication of his new devotional book. The interviewer asked him if his faith was challenged by the election results. He said the following:

It wasn’t a challenge to my faith in terms of believing or not believing in God. I’m a bit of a process theologian, which means that, as life goes along, I believe in an all-loving God who may not always be in control, rather than an all-powerful God who is not loving. But I was definitely depressed for a few months after the election.

Frankly, if that were the choice we Christians face—between a God who is all-powerful but not all loving or all-loving but not not all-powerful—then we’d all have good reason to be depressed! If it were true that our all-loving God “may not always be in control,” then how can we possibly trust or depend on him? After all, God makes many promises to his children in scripture. How do we know that he has the power to fulfill them?

Fortunately, the Rev. Shillady has offered us a false choice: to say the least, God can be all-loving and all-powerful and also allow Donald Trump to be president! And that would be equally true if Clinton had won.

What’s tragic, however, is that so many Methodist laypeople, Secretary Clinton included, are being taught otherwise!

Still, Shillady’s words are a timely reminder of why we need a firm grasp on God’s providence.

So let’s go back to the controversial 2007 post from pastor John Piper, which he wrote after the 35W bridge collapsed and killed 35 people and injured 145. Was Piper right or wrong?

Piper begins by saying that on the night the bridge collapsed, the appointed scripture for his family devotion time was Luke 13:1-5. He writes, “It was not my choice. This is surely no coincidence.” I assume Piper means that the reading came by way of a pre-determined calendar of scripture readings or a devotional book.

If so, Jesus’ words in that passage couldn’t be more timely. Jesus and his disciples have just received breaking news: Pontius Pilate massacred Galilean worshipers in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s likely that the messengers who delivered the news expected Jesus to endorse a widely held theological interpretation of tragedies such as this one: God was punishing its victims for their particular sins. Instead, Jesus says the following:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Notice that Jesus’ other example of recent tragedy—a tower falling on people—couldn’t be more closely related to the 35W bridge disaster. So I agree with Piper: The fact that this scripture was the appointed text on this particular evening is surely no coincidence… Unless of course meticulous providence doesn’t exist, in which case coincidences abound.

Because even my saying that this was “no coincidence” requires a lot of providential string-pulling: For example, months or years earlier, God, foreseeing the 35W bridge tragedy, inspired someone—a devotional writer or publisher—to choose Luke 13:1-5 as the reading for this particular day, after which God made sure that this devotional book got into the hands of John Piper and his family, and they were reading from it the night of the tragedy.

Pastor and author Tim Keller makes a similar point about the establishment of his church, Redeemer Presbyterian, in Manhattan:

Redeemer exists to a great degree because my wife, Kathy, and I were set to New York City to start this as a new church. Why were we sent? It was because we joined a Presbyterian denomination that encouraged church planting and that sent us out. But why did we join a Presbyterian denomination? We joined it because in the very last semester of my last year at seminary, I had two courses under a particular professor who convinced me to adopt the doctrines and beliefs of Presbyterianism. But why was that professor at the seminary at that time? He was there only because, after a long period of waiting, he was finally able to get his visa as a citizen of Great Britain to come and teach in the United States.

This professor had been hired by my U.S. seminary but had been having a great deal of trouble getting a visa. For various reasons at the time the process was very clogged and there was an enormous backlog of applications.

What was it that broke through all the red tape so he could get his visa and come in time to teach me that last semester? I was told that his visa process was facilitated because one of the students at our seminary at the time was able to give the school administration an unusually high-level form of help. The student was the son of the sitting president of the United States at the time. Why was his father president? It was because the former president, Richard Nixon, had to resign as a result of the Watergate scandal. But why did the Watergate scandal even occur? I understand that it was because a night watchman noticed an unlatched door.

What if the security guard had not noticed the door? What if he had simply looked in a different direction. In that case – nothing else in that long string of ‘coincidences’ would have ever occurred. And there would be no Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the city. Do you think all that happened by accident? I don’t. If that did not all happen by accident, nothing happens by accident.

I like to say to people at Redeemer: If you are glad for this church, then even Watergate happened for you.

Very seldom do we glimpse even a millionth of the ways that God is working all things together for good for those who love God. But he is.[†]

Even Watergate happened for you. 

Do we believe that God has the power to work in the world like this? Do we believe that God loves us enough to work in the world like this?

If not, then let’s stop thanking God for happy coincidences. They are nothing more than the outworking of blind physical forces and ungoverned human will.

And you might say, “Yes, but I believe God’s providence applies to good things that happen in the world! Every good thing happens for a reason, just not the bad things!”

With a moment’s reflection, however, I think you’ll see that you can’t have one without the other. God will often have to work through pain, suffering, sin, and evil—as he did in the events of Watergate—to arrive at those events that are good for us and our world—for example, the founding of Redeemer. Besides, as Job wisely said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” We can know that Job was espousing good theology, by the way, because the very next sentence tells us, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

Years ago, during a wilderness period in my spiritual life, I was a skeptic on the doctrine of providence. When I heard someone thank God for something that I considered trivial, I often thought, without saying out loud, “If you’re going to thank God for something that goes your way, are you prepared to blame God when things don’t go your way?”

Although I would never put it like that today, my logic was sound: If God is in control, he’s in control all the way. It cannot be the case that we live in a world in which some things “just happen,” as I’ve heard more than a few pastors say, while other things reflect God’s providence. Why? Because the things that “just happen” affect everything else in the world. There’s a ripple effect—or as Keller puts it, a “butterfly effect”—of unimaginable consequences from even one small, seemingly insignificant event. Not to mention that all along that causal chain, God’s people are praying, and the God to whom they’re praying has promised to answer our prayers and grant our petitions.

Years ago, I argued with a friend in ministry about whether “God cares who wins the Super Bowl.” I was emphatic: Of course God cares! How could he not? He’s got players, coaches, team owners, front-office personnel, stadium vendors, and fans of both teams, all of whom God loves and all of whom care passionately about who wins and loses. For many, their livelihoods depend on or are deeply affected by the game’s outcome. Moreover, many of them are Christians who are praying to a God who tells them in his Word that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” All means all, including the snap of every ball in every play!

Why would a Christian believe that God doesn’t care about who wins the Super Bowl? Do we believe that God has “more important” things to care about—global terrorism, hunger, nuclear proliferation, racism, etc.? In which case, we think, God is “too big” to care about something small and insignificant like a football game. In believing this, however, we’re really saying that God is too small to care: He’s merely a bigger, more perfect version of ourselves: like us, he has a limited amount of time and attention to give to things and people in the world. Every moment he spends redeeming a heartbreaking loss for an Atlanta Falcons player (or fan) is one less moment he has to spend on North Korea’s nuclear program.

Is my logic wrong here? Is the underlying assumption not a faulty belief that we’re competing for God’s attention alongside billions of other people or things in the universe?

Anyway, I didn’t make it more than three paragraphs into Piper’s essay, and I’ve written over 1,700 words. I’ll write more soon!

Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 265-6.


Sermon 07-30-17: “The Rest of Your Time on Earth”

August 10, 2017

The first question-and-answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The apostle Peter would surely agree. As he puts it in today’s scripture, we are to “live for the will of God.” Yet don’t we often push God to the periphery of our lives? I pray that this sermon inspires us to put God back at the center.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 4:1-6

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My family and I returned late Wednesday night from our vacation in Washington, D.C., and New York City. We rented basement apartments through Airbnb in both cities. Our place in Washington had private parking in an alley driveway. So we parked the car once, and took the subway or “Ubered” wherever we needed to go.

But New York City was different. We rented a place in Brooklyn, and, like everyone else there, we had to park on the street. Can I tell you that the only thing I dreaded about the trip—the thing that filled me with the most fear about going to New York—was driving in the city and parking. Lisa read that 40 percent of traffic in Brooklyn is people driving around looking for parking. Having now experienced it firsthand, I believe it! And you know, I just wanted to blend in with everybody else, but you can’t blend in with a Georgia license plate on back of your car! They see that and think you’re an idiot who doesn’t know how to drive!

But you know what? We did O.K. And we learned how the system worked.

Because here’s the thing: Even if you’re not going anywhere by car in New York City—even if you’re going to take the subway everywhere—you can’t leave your car parked for very long in any one place. Why? Because at least once—usually twice—a week, a street sweeper cleans alternate sides of each street, and you can’t be parked on one side of the street when that side is scheduled to be cleaned. The times are posted on signs. So for example, on Monday morning, “our” side of the street was being cleaned from 8:30 to 10:00 and then again on Thursday morning. Well, we were leaving on Wednesday, so we knew if we could only find a new space on Monday morning, we’d be golden.

So early Monday morning we had to move our car. So Lisa and I got up early—Lisa accompanied me for moral support—to move our car and try to find an empty space somewhere else.

And guess what? We failed. We found no empty spaces anywhere near home—except on the side of the street that was being cleaned, of course, which didn’t help. Read the rest of this entry »


To be made in God’s image says far more about God than it says about us

August 10, 2017

I wrote a shorter version of the following for our church’s weekly email blast.

In my sermon a couple of weeks ago, I referred to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, whose text was engraved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, alongside the Gettysburg Address. When my family was in Washington a few weeks ago, we read aloud the text of both speeches.

As great as these speeches are, however, what impressed me most was the statue itself. For me, this image of Lincoln communicates strength, wisdom, steadiness, and faith. This memorial inspired me to spend about 20 thinking about Lincoln and the principles for which he stood.

You know what I didn’t think about? The marble out of which the sculpture was made, the biographical details of the sculptor who created it, or how difficult it must have been to do so. No, I thought about the man in whose image the sculpture was made.

Does this give us a sense, then, of what Genesis 1:27 means when it says that we are made in God’s image? Our reason for existing is to reflect the glory of God, rather than our own glory. When people encounter us, they ought to learn something about who God is, and who Jesus is. We ought to inspire others to praise the One in whose image we’re made.

Do we?

To say the least, to be made in God’s image is intended to say far more about who God is than who we are. It’s funny: I think I’ve gotten that exactly backwards for most of my life!

With characteristic eloquence, pastor John Piper puts it like this:

So our existence is about showing God’s existence or, specifically, it’s about showing God’s glory. Which I think means God’s manifold perfections—the radiance, the display, the streaming out of his many-colored, beautiful perfections. We want to think and live and act and speak in such a way that we draw attention to the manifold perfections of God. And I think the way we do that best is by being totally satisfied in the those perfections ourselves. They mean more to us than money and more to us than fame and more to us than sex or anything else that might compete for our affections. And when people see us valuing God that much and his glory being that satisfying, they see that he is our treasure. Show me more! I think that’s what it means to glorify God by being in his image.[†]

John Piper, “Question 4” in The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 30.


Sermon 07-16-17: “The Gospel, Noah’s Ark, and Christ’s Victorious Reign”

August 8, 2017

Today’s sermon deals mostly with what many scholars consider the most difficult verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 3:19, which says that sometime after his death, Christ “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” This verse has been used as a proof-text for a part of the Apostles’ Creed that we United Methodists no longer say: “[Christ] descended into hell.” But is that what it means? This sermon will help us figure it out.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 3:18-22

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I personally have never shopped at IKEA, nor have I ever put any of their furniture together. My wife, Lisa, has, and she’s a champ at it. But I know from its reputation, that their instructions can be notoriously difficult: They’ve inspired memes and satirical articles. One Buzzfeed article was entitled, “Why Building Ikea Furniture Is Probably Satan’s Favorite Hobby.” Two years ago, when IKEA announced that they were assisting Syrian refugees by donating ready-to-assemble shelters, one Onion writer said, “Haven’t these people been through enough without the added struggle of assembling IKEA products?”

But we all know the frustration of trying to assemble something at home—I’m thinking of baby cribs, for instance—only to find that when we get through assembling it, there are these mysterious parts left over. And we don’t know where or how they fit in, and the prospect of taking it apart and reassembling it makes us want to use words that we wouldn’t want our pastor to hear—and you wouldn’t want your pastor to say. Read the rest of this entry »


Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 1)

August 7, 2017

Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. From what I’ve read, the tragedy represents a failure of engineering (I say as a former engineer myself) and public policy: tax-paying citizens and their representatives in government are unwilling to pay for needed infrastructure repairs and improvements. Until we are, tragedies like the 35W bridge will repeat themselves.

The good news for Minnesota is that this particular tragedy motivated the state to repair dozens of bridges that, like the 35W, were in danger of failing.

Be that as it may, let me pose a theological question: Despite the many human and bureaucratic misjudgments and sins that went into the 35W’s collapse, could God have intervened somewhere along the way either to prevent the bridge’s collapse, or at least ensure that when it did collapse, no one would be on it (as with the famous Tacoma Narrows)?

If the answer is “yes,” then we must be prepared for the next question: Why? Why didn’t he?

Nearly everywhere I turn on social media, I’m confronted with one blog post after another telling me that, despite the cliché, everything doesn’t happen for a reason (or at least a reason that can’t be fully explained by science or free will), so we Christians are committing pastoral malpractice if we hint that God might have some deeper reason for allowing human or natural evil—and the suffering left in its wake. To ask why, we’re told, is almost sinfully presumptuous.

In one representative sermon by a popular United Methodist pastor I know, he said the following: “We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true.”

At one point in my life—as late as 2010—I would have agreed: God is not the author of sin or evil, therefore, when sin or evil happens, God doesn’t cause it. I still believe that. But several years ago I would then take the next (unwarranted) step: If God doesn’t cause it, he must also not have any good reason for allowing it.

As I’ve written before in many blog posts, this idea runs roughshod over the Bible. Here are only a few examples:

After the climax of the Joseph story in Genesis 50, Joseph tells his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” In other words, God had good reasons for allowing Joseph’s brothers to carry out their evil plans against him, and these reasons were different from Joseph’s brothers.

In Job 1-2, God allows Satan to carry out his evil against Job as a test of his faith. Satan believes that Job’s faith will falter in the face of suffering. God will prove otherwise, and teach something to Job and his friends in the process. What Satan intended for evil, God intended for good.

The prophet Isaiah teaches in many places that foreign powers like Assyria and Babylon are his agents for judging and punishing Israel. While this judgment and punishment reflect God’s righteousness, the behavior of Assyria and Babylon is evil, for which they too will be judged and punished. (See, for example, Isaiah 10.)

The same goes for Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: Paul complains about his “thorn in the flesh,” which is both a “messenger of Satan sent to torment” Paul, and a gift that “was given” (divine passive) by God to keep Paul humble.

In each of these cases (and many more throughout the Bible), God has no compunction about using evil to accomplish good—even though God doesn’t cause evil.

Besides, we haven’t even dealt with the other part of my clergy colleague’s statement: “because God is in control.” Does he really believe that God is, in any meaningful sense, in control? If so, then how is it “just not true” that suffering isn’t God’s will?

Again, how would my clergy colleague—indeed, the many pastors and bloggers who tell us to avoid saying “everything happens for a reason”—answer the question I pose above: “Could God have intervened somewhere along the way either to prevent the collapse of the 35W bridge—or at least ensure that when it did collapse, no one would be on it?”

So long as he would answer “yes” (which is the clear orthodox Christian, not to mention biblical, answer), then he has contradicted himself.

In the new book from the Gospel Coalition, The New City Catechism, which updates classic Protestant catechisms for our modern era, Question 2 asks, “What is God?” The answer:

God is the creator and sustainer of everyone and everything. He is eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in his power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth. Nothing happens except through him and by his will.

Nothing happens except through him and by his will. Granted, in the Methodist circles in which I run, I can anticipate the objection: “But the Gospel Coalition is Reformed! Of course they believe that!”

To which I would say, “Yes, but we Wesleyan-Arminians believe it, too! Or at least we’re supposed to!”

Only recently have some of my Methodist colleagues boarded a lifeboat called “Process Theology,” or its friendlier “evangelical” form, “Open Theism,” to escape the orthodox conviction that nothing happens except through God and by God’s will.

Open theism, whose most popular contemporary proponent is Greg Boyd, says that God is time-bound rather than timeless. God’s time-boundedness (from an open-theist perspective) is usually construed as a “decision” on God’s part: God doesn’t want to “determine” the future by knowing it[*]; therefore he limits himself to being a participant in history alongside us creatures.

Therefore, God doesn’t know the future.

(By the way, if memory serves, the current version of the United Methodist Disciple I Bible study advocates for open theism in one of its weekly video lectures. 🙄)

Does this mean that God is less than omniscient? Does God not know everything, as Christian theology has always maintained? Not all, the open theist would say. God does know everything—at least everything there is to be known—all knowable facts. Since the future hasn’t happened yet, however, any future event is not a knowable fact. Therefore, that God doesn’t know the future doesn’t compromise his omniscience.

Therefore, when bridges collapse and people die, this surprises God as much as everyone else. The open-theist apologist would then say, “Of course God hates this evil and suffering, but what could he do about it? His hands are tied!”

Of course, this raises a question: Why is God, who knows all facts—including whether or not a bridge is properly designed, the tensile strength holding a bridge together, and the the external forces working against it—unable to anticipate the collapse of a bridge?

Or if God can anticipate a bridge’s collapse—not even by knowing the future but by knowing all pertinent facts about the bridge—yet does nothing to prevent it, how does open theism solve the problem for which it was apparently made to order?

I ask because no one would think up “open theism” without an eye toward theodicy: how can I reconcile God’s goodness with the fact that there’s unjust suffering in the world? Greg Boyd, for one, is always talking about theodicy. If this theological system can’t do the one thing it was created to do—given how badly it already fails on biblical grounds—why bother with it?

(Theologian Andrew Wilson has an excellent post on the subject of open theism here.)

That’s enough for now. In Part 2, I’ll look at a controversial blog post from 2007, written by John Piper, whose church was located near the bridge, and a critical response from Greg Boyd.

* Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not conceding for a moment that God’s foreknowledge of an event determines that event. The content of God’s foreknowledge is based in part on what human beings freely do (with the understanding that human freedom is badly compromised by sin). I like the way William Lane Craig puts it: Future events are logically, though not temporally, prior to God’s knowledge of them.


Sermon 07-09-17: “Risking It All for Christ”

August 4, 2017

The Christians to whom the apostle Peter was writing were willing to risk everything for the sake of their faith in Christ. Why? Because they understood how high the stakes were: People they knew and loved were living and dying apart from a saving relationship with God through Christ. What about us? Do we live as if we understand those stakes?

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 3:17-18

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As is my tradition when I go on vacation, I took my boys to a movie. We saw Spider-Man: Homecoming. And it was great! And we were supporting our local economy: a lot of it was filmed in Fayetteville.

In the movie, there’s a suspenseful scene in which our hero, who is really just a teenage boy named Peter Parker, is racing up the side of the Washington Monument, in an effort to save some of his high school classmates, who are trapped in an elevator at the top—and the elevator is about to come crashing down. You’ll recall that Spider-Man has the power for his hands and feet to “stick” to surfaces, like a spider.

Don’t look down, Spider-Man!

So Peter is racing up the side of the monument. Suddenly, when he’s at the top of the monument, where the obelisk comes to a point, he looks down, and he’s afraid. Afraid of heights. Afraid of falling. His Spider-Man suit has Siri—or, like, a really advanced version of Siri whom he has named “Karen.” Karen asks him what’s wrong, and he says, “I’ve never been this high up before!” And “Karen,” in this very chipper, cheerful tone of voice, tells him: “Peter, because you forgot to reload your built-in parachute, a fall from this height will do doubt prove fatal.” Thanks, Karen, for that encouragement!

But my point is, the stakes for Peter Parker couldn’t be higher. Every move he makes on top of that monument is potentially a matter of life or death.

And brothers and sisters, the apostle Peter is writing to a group of Christians for whom being faithful to Jesus was also a matter of life or death. And they knew it! They knew that their allegiance to Christ—that their faithfulness to him and his mission—could cost them their lives. And they were O.K. with that—or at least they were trying to be.

This was the attitude of the early church! This was the attitude of Peter, who, as I said last week knew he had an appointment to keep with the executioner; Jesus warned him about that in John chapter 21. And Peter says later in this letter, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”[1] This was the attitude of Paul—“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”[2] This was the attitude of the writer of Hebrews: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.”[3] Read the rest of this entry »


Sermon 07-02-17: “How to Suffer Well”

August 3, 2017

Like so much of 1 Peter, today’s scripture is about unjust suffering. As I point out in this sermon, we American Christians likely won’t face much suffering for our faith, yet our fear of suffering often prevents us from witnessing boldly to our faith. The difficult truth, as Peter makes clear, is that God sometimes wants us to suffer and to do so being “mindful of God.” What does that mean and how can being “mindful of God” help us to suffer well? This sermon answers this question.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 2:18-25

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Some of you know or have met Tracy Fleming, the owner-operator of the Chick-fil-A in Lovejoy. He’s a friend of our church; he’s spoken at our Men’s Club a couple of times, and of course I know him from hanging out at that particular Chick-fil-A. For many years now, Tracy has been taking multiple trips to China each year, spending his own money to train and equip Chinese Christians in many of China’s underground churches. It’s a risky venture for him, because when he goes there, he knows that he and his fellow Christians are under surveillance by the government. He knows that each time he goes there he knows that he might not come back.

Tracy told me about a conversation he had with a Chinese pastor there, who described to him the intense persecution that he and many of his fellow pastors and Christians were facing. Tracy said to him, “I’ll be praying that the Lord will put an end to the persecution and suffering of you and your fellow Christians.” And this pastor looked at Tracy with a flash of anger and said, “What makes you think that God wants to put an end to our persecution and suffering? God is using this persecution and suffering to advance God’s kingdom in China.”

Tracy said he was thoroughly humbled! Read the rest of this entry »


What the Trinity says about God’s loving nature

July 28, 2017

The New City Catechism Devotional continues to bless me. I’m writing down these words about the Trinity from Kevin DeYoung mostly so I can quickly refer to them the next time I teach confirmation class.

The doctrine of the Trinity is the most important Christian doctrine that most people never think about. It’s absolutely essential to our faith, and yet for many Christians it just seems like a very confusing math problem. And even if we can figure out what Trinity means, it doesn’t feel like it has much bearing on our lives, much relevance to us.

The word Trinity, famously, is not found in the Bible, but the word does very well at capturing a number of biblical truths. There are actually seven statements that go into the doctrine of the Trinity:

  1. God is one. There’s only one God.
  2. The Father is God.
  3. The Son is God.
  4. The Holy Spirit is God.
  5. The Father is not the Son.
  6. The Son is not the Spirit.
  7. The Spirit is not the Father.

If you get those seven statements, then you’ve captured the doctrine of the Trinity—what it means when we say there is one God and three persons.[1]

Is that clear to you? Would this communicate with 12-and 13-year-olds in confirmation class?

Incidentally, as I’ve mentioned before, I like the ministry of Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig, who frequently debates world-renown atheists. One of his arguments for God’s existence is the “moral argument”: in a nutshell, the fact that objective moral values and duties exist means that God exists. If there are laws, there must be a law-giver. If there’s no law-giver, then no matter how strongly we “feel” that something is wrong, what we feel is the result of blind, undirected physical forces: to say something is “wrong” is merely to assert one’s personal taste. (For more on this, see this old post.)

But this raises a potential problem, as many of Craig’s opponents point out: Are these objective moral values and duties good because God says they’re good? Or is their goodness based on a standard external to God himself?

Do you see the problem? If we say “because God says so,” that seems arbitrary.

On the other hand, if the standard by which we measure goodness is external to God himself, then God is unrelated to this standard, and the moral argument goes out the window. (In philosophical circles, this problem is often called “the Euthyphro dilemma,” which was raised by Socrates himself.)

Craig would call this a false choice and say something like this: We can be confident that what God commands is good not simply because he says so, but because what God “says” is rooted in his divine nature, which is only good and loving. You can easily Google his argument, and let Craig speak for himself!

Regardless, the Trinity shows how this is true: God, in his very nature, is a loving relationship of three Persons. From eternity past, this relationship, at the center of God’s nature, demonstrates true love, which is the foundation of objective moral values and duties.

Not that DeYoung was addressing the “moral argument” when he wrote the following, but I find it helpful to this discussion:

“[W]hen you have a triune God, you have the eternality of love. Love has existed from all time. If you have a god who is not three persons, he has to create a being to love, to be an expression of his love. But Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing in eternity have always had this relationship of love. So love is not a created thing. God didn’t have to go outside of himself to love. Love is eternal. And when you have a triune God, you have fully this God who is love.[2]

God did not have to go outside of himself to love. To be a loving god, a non-Trinitarian god would have to first create someone or something to love.

Not so the God of Christianity. He is loving by nature, in and of himself, such that the apostle John can say, “God is love.”

Therefore, God does not have to “go outside of himself” to find a standard to measure the goodness of God’s commands. What God commands is good because it springs from this loving nature.

1. The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 26.

2. Ibid., 27.


Alternate street parking in New York and our Christian faith

July 27, 2017

I’m back from vacation! I wrote the following for our church’s weekly e-newsletter:

My family and I returned late Wednesday night from our vacation in Washington, D.C., and New York City. We rented basement apartments through “Airbnb” in both cities. Our place in Washington had private parking in an alley driveway. Our place in Brooklyn, however, had the same parking available to everyone else: on the street.

Lisa read that 40 percent of traffic in Brooklyn is people driving around looking for parking. Having now experienced it firsthand, I believe it!

But at least I know how it works: Twice a week in most places, a street sweeper cleans alternate sides of each street. The times are posted on signs. On Monday, “our” side of the street was being cleaned from 8:30 to 10:00. Lisa and I got up early to move our car and try to find an empty space somewhere else. We failed. We found no empty spaces–except on the side of the street that was being cleaned.

Meanwhile, many of the cars that were parked on our side of the street were now double-parked on the other side of the street. Their owners would then move them to the other side of the street at 10:00 (or about 15 minutes before). So like a couple of locals, we did the same thing.

A friend in Brooklyn told us that for most residents, this is all the driving they do every week: Moving their car from one side of the street to the other, and back again. A couple of times a week. Their car is there if they need it, but mostly they take the subway or walk.

I’m sure there’s a sermon illustration here somewhere.

After all, our relationship with Jesus Christ ought to be at the center of our lives. We Christians belong to the Lord (Romans 14:7-8), and everything we do–whether at work, or at school, or at home with the family, or on vacation, or out with friends–we do for him and his glory (Colossians 3:23-24). We should rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18a).

Yet, how often do we treat our Christian faith like it’s a parked car in Brooklyn? It’s something we use once or twice a week. Or when all else fails. But most of the time, we rely on our own wits, or other things, or other people, to get us through life.

What about you?

I hope that Hampton United Methodist is a place where we disciples are learning to depend on Jesus, and trust in Jesus, more and more. Join me in praying that it will be.