Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Star and the Cross

Black was the sky of the oriental night
Bejeweled as an empress displaying her might.
Lost in the tedium of nocturnal watch,
The wisest of wise appraised a new sight.

High in the heavens and brighter than most
A dazzling new object had joined the host.
The astrologers pondered and ventured a guess:
“A mighty new monarch this beacon does toast.”

Consulting their sources and making their plans
The seekers trekked westward across the hot sands.
They followed the beacon that showed them the way
To the City of David, and the Savior of man.

By day and by night they followed the trail
Of their guiding light with much travail,
For a curious sight its beams had revealed
— The form of a cross in full detail.

For two years they followed their stellar guide
Until it rested, and shown with pride
O’er a humble house and the family there
Who with the Mighty King did abide.

So they offered their gifts, their praise to assign
As the cross and the star continued to shine,
And knowing not why, their burden was lifted;
The child in the house did their sorrow consign.

Some thirty years later, on a cross made of wood
The child, now a young man, there hung in the nude,
And the bright Star of Bethlehem continued to blaze,
The King of all kings gave His life to conclude.

Three dark days later the Star’s light broke through
Announcing the hope of a life that is true,
And all who will venture their life to yield
To the Star and the cross will gain life anew.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke2:14)

Peace.  Such an elusive word.  So full of hope, and yet so seemingly unattainable.  The angels proclaimed “peace on earth, and good will toward men” as they announced the Savior’s birth that holy night.  There was no peace on earth at the time of that proclamation.  The Roman Empire was in control of a major part of the western world, and there was unrest in the land of Judea as one uprising after another was crushed by the heavy hand of the Roman legions.  Things then were not much different than what we see today – unrest in the Middle East, the constant threat of war, Korea bent on becoming a nuclear power, China vamping up her navy and playing havoc with the American economy, Europe on the verge of economic collapse.  There is no peace on earth.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men.

Then, in despair I bowed my head,
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth good will to men”

But the hope of peace is strong within man, and so the lowly shepherds to whom the announcement was made, left their flocks in hope of catching a glimpse of the tiny Prince of Peace that had come into the world.  He would later say, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).  Amidst all the trouble and chaos of the world, He still promises peace and encouragement: “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

Then peal the bells more loud and deep;
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth good will to men.

A dear friend recently enlightened me to the fact that “Joy to the World” is not really a Christmas carol.  It is not about Christ’s first coming; it is about His second coming!  There will be no peace on earth until the King of Kings comes to reign over all of His creation.  At that time, it will be most appropriate to sing:

Joy to the world the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Or thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

Writing almost 800 years before the first advent, the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  The tiny babe Whose birth we celebrate this Christmas is the hope of peace for a troubled world and the realization of peace for those who know Him as Savior.  Let us find our peace in Him!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mary's Little Lamb

He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed …But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.  He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. (Isa 53:5-7)[i]

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)

One of the hazards (if you can call it that) of knowing the Bible is that it makes it difficult to enjoy any movie that attempts to portray a biblical account.  Without much effort, one can find a plethora of inaccuracies with the retelling of the story or with the theology that is presented.  Anytime such a movie comes out, I am usually skeptical about wasting God’s money to go see it, but recently, there have been some very good exceptions to the rule.  “The Gospel of John” is an excellent example of well made Bible movie that remained, for the most part, true to the biblical text.  As I watched that movie, I found that I could recall exactly what chapter and verse was being depicted on the screen – much to the annoyance of my wife who was trying to enjoy the movie.  Another masterful rendition of biblical text was Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.”  Even though the dialogue was in the original languages of the time – Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic – I had no trouble staying up with the story line.  Except for the presentation of the origin of certain “relics,” the movie so stirred my emotions that I found little to criticize.

The most recent example of a great Bible movie was released just a few years ago.  It is “The Nativity Story.”  The movie is not without flaws (mainly chronological discrepancies at the end of the movie), but it is by far the best rendition on the birth of Christ that I have ever seen.  The main characters are cast as common, ordinary people.  Mary is a young woman from a very poor family.  She is still interested in playing with her friends.  She helps with the family business – that of making and selling goat cheese.  She is certainly not interested in marriage and when Joseph comes to ask for her hand, she reluctantly accepts only to appease her father who fears losing her to Roman tax collectors, not to mention needing the economic relief of one less mouth to feed.  Mary is not portrayed as overly religious, but when the angel announces that she has been chosen to bear the Son of God she accepts without argument except to question the possibility of pregnancy since she is sexually pure.[ii]  Shortly thereafter she requests permission to go visit her cousin Elizabeth who is also expecting.[iii]  There, Elizabeth affirms what Mary already knows.[iv]  Following a lengthy stay in her cousin’s home, Mary returns to Nazareth to be greeted by the critical stares of knowing neighbors.  When she breaks the news to her family and to Joseph, all are devastated and incredulous at her claim that this was an act of God.  At Joseph request, she could have been stoned to death, but instead, although brokenhearted, Joseph chooses to reserve judgment.  In a dream, Joseph receives confirmation that Mary’s claim is true, and he decides to accept her as his wife in spite of the ridicule they are sure to receive.[v]  Later Mary chooses to go with her “husband” to Bethlehem for the census that has been ordered by Caesar Augustus.[vi]  Their journey is difficult and fraught with peril.  Along the way, Joseph’s selflessness endears him to Mary, and it becomes obvious that her feelings toward him have changed.  They finally arrive at Bethlehem, and it is there that the Christ child is born.

What moves me so in this story is the genuineness of the feelings expressed by the main characters.  Mary, though willing to obey God’s design for her, questions her worthiness to carry out such an overwhelming assignment.  Joseph wonders if there will be anything that he can teach Him.  Both wonder how they will know for sure that He really is the Promised One.  Will it be something that He says?  Will it be a certain look that He will give them that lets them know?  When the baby is born, both shed the tears and laughter of joy that all new parents experience at the birth of a child.  Then you see the tiny little baby.  So small.  So fragile.  So helpless.  Incomprehensible is the thought that this little bundle of flabby flesh is the Almighty God incarnate!  Then the overpowering reality grips your heart as you realize that this, Mary’s little lamb, is the Lamb of God that will be sacrificed for the sins of the world – your sins and mine.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM


[i] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are taken from THE NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE UPDATE.  Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995, by The Lockman Foundation.
[vii] Green, Buddy and Mark Lowry, “Mary Did You Know”

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Almighty Creator in Infant Form

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

This time of year we expect to see the story of the birth of Christ played out in humble means by children in small churches, or by freezing “actors” in “living” nativity scenes, or in glitzy performances by mega church choirs.  Why, even the Rockettes present the Christmas story at the end of every performance.  All of these presentations begin with the typical scene of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in a stable, surrounded by farm animals, and conclude with an unbiblical menagerie of shepherds, wise men and angels worshipping the Christ child.

While this serves as a sweet reminder to get one focused on the true meaning of Christmas, it somehow misses the awesome significance of this event.  The Word, the Logos, the revealed Wisdom of God, was manifested in a tiny, helpless infant.  This now revealed Word, our verse tells us, existed with God at the beginning of time (v. 2), and He was, in fact, very God.  “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (v. 3).  “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:  But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7).  And so, “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14) in the form of a helpless baby – a baby that, though He existed in eternity past, entered and grew in His mother’s womb from a zygote to a fetus that had to fight His way through the birth canal.  He came as a baby that had to be nursed at His mother’s breast.  A baby that had to be carried everywhere He went.  A baby that had to have His diapers changed.  This was God in human form – the Creator of heaven and earth cloaked in human flesh as a babe.

The idea of it all is inconceivable!  Yet, this was His plan from the beginning, so that “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12).  “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).  That is the message that is often overshadowed in the scenes of the season. 

The lyrics to Mark Lowry’s song, “Mary Did You Know” so poignantly express the significance of this blessed event:

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I am.

This Christmas, try to think past the manger scene and see the babe for the God He truly is.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Don’t Get Spoiled

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

The imperative verb “beware” expresses more than a casual caution.  It is the Greek verb blépete meaning to look or observe carefully and intently with perception.  God’s Word consistently urges us to observe carefully the events going on around us that threaten to assault our Christian faith.  “Beware lest thou forget the LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:12).    Jesus warned,Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15), and “beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).  Paul alerts the Philippians to “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the concision” (Philippians 3:2).  Peter also cautions, “beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness” (2 Peter 3:17).

In our day it appears that the threat to “spoil you” has intensified.  The verb spoil here is not the same as we understand for milk or other food becoming unfit for consumption, although that understanding might have some merit here.  However, the Greek word translated “spoil” here, sulagogeo, means to be lead away as booty or to be seduced.  The idea is that of a conquering warrior carrying off a great prize.  That man then, by implication is Satan.  And how does he do this?  He does it through philosophy -- the humanistic, evolutionistic thinking of our modern world who “professing themselves to be wise” (Romans 1:22) have become fools and through vain or “empty” deceit.  This is like the unsubstantial political promise of “change;” it sounds good when obscured in clouds of ambiguity but the end result is worse than the beginning.  These things come “after the tradition of men” and “the rudiments,” i.e., the principles “of the world,” i.e., the kosmos or the world system, juxtaposed to the tradition and principles that are “after Christ.”  Beware! And don’t get spoiled!  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Wisdom Unto Salvation

And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  (2 Timothy 3:15)

Paul, facing certain death, writes his final letter to Timothy, his “son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), to encourage his young associate left behind at Ephesus.  Paul reminds Timothy “that from a child thou hast known the holy scripture.”  The verb “hast known” (Greek: oídas) indicates that Timothy possessed a perceptive understanding of God’s Word.  Thus he could have full confidence that the Scriptures are able give wisdom and insight into salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Not that Timothy needed salvation; he was already saved, but in his work as a minister of the Gospel, he needed the wisdom gained from Scripture in order to be “throughly furnished unto all good works” (v. 17) the most important of which is leading others to saving faith in Christ.  For this, he must have full confidence in his equipment knowing that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (v.16).  As such, all Scripture is useful for instruction of the church, reproof of an errant brother, for correction of the same, and training in righteous living.  For Timothy to do all of this, he first needed to give diligent effort to the study of the Scriptures to show himself “approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy2:15).

This exhortation applies to all Christians of all times.  All Christians, in a sense, are ministers.  So, as ministers, “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).  The Greek word for “answer” in this verse is apologia from which we get our word “apologetics;” that is wisdom unto salvation. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Single Eye

Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way. (Psalm 119:37)

Psalm 119 is a collection of 176 verses in 22 groups of eight verses each.  Each group of eight begins with the same Hebrew letter, and the groups are arranged in alphabetical order.  Our verse is the fifth verse in the fifth group – He (pronounced “heh”).

The first word in the verse is ha`abeer which means to “cause to cross over” as in a stream that cannot be forded.  The sense of the psalmist’s cry is that he has come to a raging river that he, of his own power, cannot cross, and he is calling out to God to help him get over this impasse.  The barrier to his progress is the lust of the eyes (1 John 2:16).  In the words of the old hymn, “All the vain things that charm me most” turn our focus away from the true riches Christ has prepared for us (John 14:1-3).  Vanities are the things of this earth which are temporal.  The Bible says, “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10).  All earthly matter and the material things that come from it are all vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
Jesus urges us to have a single eye:  “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6:22).  How do we cultivate a single eye?  The psalmist pleads, “quicken [Hebrew chayah – to make alive] thou me.”  Only God can keep our eye single.  Jesus, the incarnate Word of God (John 1:14), reminds us, “without me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).  Indeed, the psalmist identifies the source of life as “thy way.”  Jesus also said, “I am the way” (John 14:6).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bad Company

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. (Psalm 1:1)

The Hebrew interjection ashreey translated “blessed” here means “How happy!” and it comes from the root word awshar which means to be straight, to be guided or to be honest and proper.  Often when we see the word “blessed” we envision material blessings, i.e., a good job with a good salary, a house with all the trappings thereof, a nice car, etc.  We may even count our physical health as a blessing.  However, that is not what is pictured in this Psalm; rather it connotes a state of peace and contentment that comes from not falling in line with bad company.

One might rightly argue, “What happens to evangelism if we avoid the ungodly, the sinners and the scornful?”  Even Jesus said, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13), and He was accused by the Pharisees of being “a friend of publicans and sinners!” (Luke 7:34).  Paul said, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).  So there must be more to our text than immediately strikes the eye.

The verb “walks” (Hebrew: halak) implies adopting the lifestyle or being influenced by a godless worldview.  In similar fashion, the verb “stand” (Hebrew: `amad) means to “abide,” to dwell in or to follow the way of sinners.   Finally, to “sit” (Hebrew: yashab) means to “settle with” and by implication means to agree with those who mock the Word of God.  The truly blessed man avoids these traps, and thus enhances his witness to the godless, scoffing sinner.  That man delights in the Word of God and is like a fruitful tree (vv. 2-3) drawing strength and nourishment from the source of living water (John 4:13-14).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Claim the Victory

But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57)

Have you ever assumed a task “for the Lord” fully confident that you had all the skills, talent, and training necessary to perform the task with excellence only to have the fruits of your labor shrivel on the vine? Conversely, have you ever refused to assume a roll of responsibility in some ministry because you felt unqualified or unworthy? The problem with either scenario is self-reliance rather than “Christ-reliance.”

A good example of both of these cases is the Apostle Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:23-33). When the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water they were fearful thinking that He was a ghost. Once Jesus had identified Himself, impetuous Peter said, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water” (v. 28). Peter wasted no time getting out of the boat when Jesus bid him to come. He was confident in his own abilities at first, and he trusted that Jesus could make him walk on the water. And he did! – for a while. But then he took his eyes off of Jesus and noticed the winds and the waves and the overwhelming laws of physics that would deny him such a feat. That is when he sank. “And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (v. 31) Peter! Did you not know that God has given you the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ?

Paul writes, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). Jesus said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). So whether we have all the talent, skills and abilities in the world, or we feel that we have nothing to offer, the power to do whatever He asks will only come when we claim and rely on His victory, not our own abilities.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Seeing Is Not Believing

But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. (John 20:31)

Our text follows our Lord’s appearance to Thomas. Thomas had heard the news that Jesus had risen from the dead, but he refused to believe it. “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Often we too can be like Thomas. Unless we see some evidence, we are unwilling to take God at His word and believe His promises to us. It matters not that the whole of creation proclaims His glory: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen” (Romans 1:20); yet we insist on seeing something new, something fresh.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that “faith is the substance [Greek: hupóstasis – a setting under, a support or a foundation] of things hoped for, the evidence [Greek: élengchos – proof or conviction] of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Abraham is someone who had faith in “things not seen.” God promised Abraham that his descendents would be numbered as the stars in the heavens. At the time, Abraham was childless and far advanced in years. He sojourned from place to place without a parcel of land to call his own, much less an heir to establish a nation. Yet “he believed in the Lord; and he [the Lord] counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

It is “through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Hebrews 11:3). “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). God gave us His Word so that we could believe without seeing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Same Old Story

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. (Genesis 3:6)

Solomon lamentably commenting on human affairs rightly stated, “there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Satan’s tactics have not changed. He still tries to cast doubt on God’s Word: “Yea, hath God said, ‘Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden’" (Genesis 3:1). He still attempts to defame God’s Word: “Ye shall not surely die!” (Genesis 3:4), and he still endeavors to denigrate God’s character: “God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5).

Sadly, humans still fall for the same old temptations: “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). From our text, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food” – the lust of the flesh; “it was a pleasant to the eyes” – the lust of the eyes, and “a tree to be desired to make one wise” – the pride of life.

In 6000 years, nothing has changed; Satan still employs the same strategies, and people still fall for the same old temptations. The good news is that “when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). To all who believe in Him, He has given the power to become sons of God (John 1:12), and with that power comes the strength to “resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). For the believer, it does not have to be the same old story!

Monday, September 19, 2011

God's Limit

My spirit shall not always strive with man, … (Genesis 6:3)

It seems out of character for God to run out of patience. We know God to be infinite in love and mercy. The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression …” (Numbers 14:18). The word translated “longsuffering” is actually a Hebrew construct of two words: ’arek, which means long, patient or slow, and ’aph meaning nose or nostril and implies the flaring of the nostrils in anger. So the sense here is that the Lord is patient or slow to anger, but this does not imply infinite patience.

Peter writes, “The Lord is … longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The Greek word translated “longsuffering” is makrothuméo, which means to be long-spirited. The Spirit could take revenge, if He liked, but refuses to do so. The word also means “forbearing,” that is, to hold back from doing something. God is within His rights to call down judgment upon every sinner, but He is holding back.

In our text, the Hebrew word translated “strive” is duwn and it means to judge. Jesus, speaking of the Holy Spirit said that, “he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8), but this striving has its limits. “Grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men … whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matthew 12:31-32). God is infinite in his love and mercy, but He has set a limit on His patience.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What Manner of Person

Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? (2 Peter 3:11)

The impermanence of this world is an oft repeated truth in the pages of Scripture. Jesus cautioned against storing “up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal” (Matthew 6:19). The impermanence of the material things we treasure in this world is clearly demonstrated on a daily basis. Clothes that are stylish one season are “retro” then next. Even the most expensive cars are destroyed in a matter of seconds due to a careless maneuver on the highway. A newly built house can be burned to the ground or decimated by a storm.

“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world … the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15, 17). “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:20-21).

Considering the impermanence of this world, “what manner of persons ought ye to be?” Peter tells us that we need to have a “holy conversation.” To be holy means to be set apart especially for the service of God. “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The King James word “conversation” translates the Greek anastrophe which means behavior or one’s manner of life. Knowing, therefore, that nothing of this world will last, everything in this world will be dissolved by fire, and that our treasure should be stored up in heaven, our lives should be lived in dedication to our Lord.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Who Is My Brother?


But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? (Matthew 12:48)

Recently I posted an internet link to an article where “Alabama governor, Robert Bentley apologized … for proclaiming to a Baptist church audience that only Christians were his brothers and sisters and vowed to work for people of all faiths and colors.”[1] In commenting on the post, I stated, “He shouldn't apologize. He spoke the truth. For the Christian, only Christians are brothers and sisters by blood -- the blood of Christ. We shouldn't feel the need to apologize for that!” It was not long before I was attacked as a purveyor of hate, and that by a Christian brother. The critic argued that we, members of the human race, are all brothers, and to make a claim like Governor Bentley is somehow un-Christian. However, Governor Bentley was not out of line in making such a comment. In context, he was in a Baptist church, and his audience was Christian (the percentage of which only God knows). Furthermore, his statement was factual.

To a point, my critic is right. We are, after all, all descendants of the first human couple, Adam and Eve, so in a sense we all are brothers and sisters. (This, by the way, is why Christians should not be racists. God only recognizes one race – the human race. Notice how the Bible talks about nations, tongues, people and tribes, but never races. But I digress.) However, my argument is that the relationship among Christian brothers and sisters is superior to, and supersedes that of all human relationships because such a relationship is eternal; human relationships are temporal. My critic was a hard sell (in fact, a no sell), so I put myself to the task of searching “the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life” (John 5:39).

“Brother” (Hebrew: awkh) is “used in the widest sense of literal relationship and metaphorical affinity or resemblance: another, brother (-ly), kindred, like, other (Strong’s Concordance). Brown-Driver-Briggs’ Hebrew Definitions defines it: (1) brother of same parents; (2) half-brother (same father); (3) relative, kinship, same tribe; (4) each to the other (reciprocal relationship); (5) (figuratively) of resemblance. In the Greek “brother” is adelphos – brother (literally or figuratively) near or remote (Strong’s Concordance). I think we all understand the rule of dictionary definitions: the first definition is the main definition of the word. Subsequent definitions are related to the main definition, albeit in a lesser sense and subject to context, inference, implication, etc. So, with this rule in mind, "brother" is a sibling who shares common parentage.

There are at least 978 occurrences of “brother” or “brethren” in the King James Bible; 630 times in the Old Testament and 348 times in the New Testament. Surely with so many occurrences there should be plentiful evidence that the word “brother” can be applied to man (humanity) in general. At the same time, we would expect to find that in most cases the main sense of the word is used (i.e., someone with biological ties).

In the study and interpretation of Scripture, there is the “Principle of First Mention” which sets the tone for how a word will be used generally throughout Scripture. In Genesis 4:2, brother is mentioned for the first time: “And she again bare his brother Abel … ” Following the principle of first mentions, we can establish that the word implies a close relationship or kinship, primarily that of biological siblings. My search confirmed that in most instances, “brother” refers to a sibling or a close relative. In Genesis 12:5 we read, “And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.” One might find such a translation awkward; however there is no Hebrew word for nephew, niece, uncle, aunt, grandfather/son, grandmother/daughter, etc. Bible critics often take this as a point of contention citing various kings whose fathers were actually great-grandfathers (i.e., Daniel 5 where Nebuchadnezzar is cited as Belshazzar’s father). But the translators of the King James Bible did well to maintain a strict literal translation and challenge the reader to “study” the Scripture.

Another example can be seen in Genesis 13:8: “And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren.” Lot is Abram’s nephew, not his brother; therefore in this context, he is referring to him as a close relative. Lot is Abram’s brother’s son, hence Lot is considered his brother too.

Some passages clearly indicate that not all men are considered brothers, contrary to my critic’s well-meaning idealism. Consider God’s promise for Ishmael in Genesis 16:12: “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. Ishmael would live in the presence of his “brethren” (i.e., his relatives), but “every man’s hand” would be against him. These “men” are NOT Ishmael’s brethren. A further distinction is made when the children of Israel built and worshiped a golden calf in the desert. God was not pleased: “he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor” (Exodus 32:27). Here a distinction is made, even within the camp of Israel, between a brother, a companion and a neighbor. So, even in Israel’s camp not all were “brothers.”

With the multiplication of Abraham’s progeny, the term was expanded to include anyone descending from him, but never to include people from the surrounding nations (i.e., Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Amorites, etc.). When God calls Moses to go and rescue His people, Moses goes to his father-in-law to request leave. “And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father in law, and said unto him, Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren which are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive … ” (Exodus 4:18). Already the relationship had expanded beyond the familial to the national. Of course the original meaning of “brother” has not been discarded: “And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet” (Exodus 7:1). Aaron, as we know, is Moses’ older sibling (Exodus 4:14).

There are many examples of the term “brother” being applied in a nationalistic sense. In Leviticus 10:8, Aaron’s sons had offered “strange fire” (v. 1) before the LORD, and God killed them (v. 2). Aaron is instructed not to mourn over the death of his sons (v. 6), “but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail . . .”(v. 8). In Deuteronomy 2:4 the “nation” of Edom (Esau) is considered a brother because Esau and Jacob (Israel) were brothers: “And command thou the people, saying, Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau …” This is akin to the U.S. and England being brethren. Again, “Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother: thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a stranger in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:7). Note that the Edomite is considered a “brother” whereas the same distinction is not applied to the Egyptian. Further distinctions are made in business dealings. Consider Deuteronomy 23:20: “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury [interest]; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.” Note that there is a different standard for dealing with a “stranger” and dealing with a (national) brother.

This national brotherhood continued into the kingdom age and beyond, as demonstrated by David’s call to national unity in bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. “And David said unto all the congregation of Israel, If it seem good unto you, and that it be of the LORD our God, let us send abroad unto our brethren every where, that are left in all the land of Israel, and with them also to the priests and Levites which are in their cities and suburbs, that they may gather themselves unto us” (1 Chronicles 13:2). During Babylonian exile, the Jews were in danger of extermination, yet they maintained a sense of national brotherhood and identity. “Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed” (Esther 10:3) After the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah was tasked with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Part of the task required that he instill a sense of national pride into the broken nation: “fight for your brethren” (Nehemiah 4:14).

The definition of brother as a sibling or a compatriot is maintained throughout the New Testament with the addition of the brotherhood of believers. This distinction is first made when Jesus is made aware of the presence of His mother and siblings outside while He taught in the synagogue (Matthew 12:46-50). “But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?” (v. 48). Not leaving the question open for discussion “he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (vv. 49-50). Jesus elevated brotherhood to a much higher level – above the familial, above the national. As such, Christ has founded a new and eternal nation. “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). “For both he that sanctifieth [i.e., Christ] and they who are sanctified [i.e., Christians] are all of one: for which cause he [i.e., Christ] is not ashamed to call them [i.e., Christians] brethren” (Hebrews 2:11). Recall that “sanctify” means to set apart, to make holy. Christ has set us apart from the rest of the world. As such, we should consider ourselves set apart, not in an arrogant sort of way, but in humility knowing that such a privilege is through no feat of our own, but through the precious blood of Christ. If one is truly of the brotherhood of Christ, there should be no shame; there should be no need for apology in making that claim!

Our brotherhood is eternal. Without going into the multitude of verses that promise eternal life to the believer, we come to the final book of the Bible where we see the Apostle John overwhelmed by all that has been revealed to him that he falls prostrate in worship before the angel. “And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10). The angel affirms that he is a “fellow servant” along with John and John’s “brethren.” This affirms the eternal relationship that we have with Christian brothers and sisters.

I have shown that the term “brother” is not broadly defined in scripture to include the so called “brotherhood of man.” In my study, I found only three passages that might support this idea. First, in Genesis 19 where two angels visit Lot in Sodom to rescue him and his family from the coming destruction. The men of the city come to Lot’s house to rape the two visitors. Sadly, Lot had sunk so low as to refer to these men as brothers: “I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly” (Genesis 19:7). At this time, there was no national Israel, and Lot was not kin to these people, yet he called them brothers. Apparently, Lot had become “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). If anything, this speaks against the “brotherhood of man.” A second use of the word brother outside of the familial or national is when Jacob went looking for his uncle, Laban. He comes upon a group of sheep herders: “And Jacob said unto them, My brethren, whence be ye? And they said, Of Haran are we” (Genesis 29:4). It is difficult to tell from the context, but apparently Jacob did not recognize these men and addressed them as “brethren” much like we do when greeting each other. As it turns out, he was related to them, so the Bible is accurate in recording that they were his brethren. A third and perhaps the strongest argument for the “brotherhood of man” is found in Malachi 2:10: “Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?” Obviously, this traces our common bond all the way back to creation and our common parents Adam and Eve. “All men are natural children of God by the fact of creation (Acts 17:24-29), but become spiritual children of God only by regeneration (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8). However, the primary thrust of this verse is the unity of the children of Israel, all of whom have the same father, Jacob. In fact, Israel also is said to have been “created” by God as a special people (Isaiah 43:1, 7).”[2] So, even this verse is not a strong enough argument for the “brotherhood of man.”

In conclusion, Governor Robert Bentley was not wrong in his assertion “that only Christians are his brothers and sisters.” As Christians, our brotherhood is superior to any human relationship. As Christians we have a familial relationship through the blood of Christ. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). We have a national kinship as citizens of the eternal kingdom of God. “But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom” (Hebrews 1:8). “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). Governor Robert Bentley has nothing for which to apologize and neither do we.

End Notes:

[2] Morris, Henry M., The New Defender’s Study Bible, (Nashville, Word Publishing, 2006), p. 1372.