Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Book of Haggai: In Five Minutes

The Book of Haggai is a short-read, only two chapters. The folks at the Bible Project, give us another installment of visual illustrations, to help us understand this particular book from the Minor Prophets.


Are Eclipses Signs from God?

 

Some are calling it the “Great American Eclipse,” when the moon covers the disc of the sun, racing across from Oregon to South Carolina, on Monday, August 21, 2017. The last time this happened in the U.S. was 1918. But is God trying to tell us something with this event?

Some Christians might think so, but is such a belief warranted? The Bible does report some unusual astronomical phenomena, such as the darkness that covered the earth, on the afternoon of the Crucifixion.

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two”(Luke 23:44-45 ESV)

Interestingly, one popular Bible translation tries to tell us how this happened:

“It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun….“(Luke 23:44-45a NAB)

A solar eclipse? While the translators of the New American Bible might be good Bible scholars, they need a refresher in astronomy. Let me explain why.

First, the movement of the moon’s shadow across the face of the earth, across a single point, travels much faster than three hours. The moon’s shadow will book across the United States, at the speed of at least 1000 mph. For example, in Columbia, SC, in the path of Monday’s total eclipse, the duration of the totality will be 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

Secondly, the timing of the lunar calendar is completely off, to support the idea of a solar eclipse. The Crucifixion happened near the time of the Jewish Passover, which happens during a full moon, midway through the Jewish month of Nissan. Total solar eclipses only occur during a new moon, when the moon’s surface facing the earth, is completely within the sun’s shadow, which is at the opposite time of the month from a full moon.

The math simply does not work. Whatever darkness happened on Good Friday, trying to tie it strictly to a natural event of a solar eclipse is pure folly. Sure, God can use these things, for His purposes, and He can produce supernatural events. But whether it be solar or lunar eclipses, or planetary alignments, caution is in order before drawing too much from naturally occurring, astronomical events.

Astrology and the Bible Do Not Mix

In the history of the church, some Christians have read too much from the “signs in the heavens.” I remember watching the movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age, just shaking my head. Queen Elizabeth, the monarch who set the theological course for the Church of England, for at least the next 400 years, consulted her astrologer, John Dee, about how her navy would fair against the Spanish Armada.

Or there is the influential colleague of Martin Luther, the German Reformer, Philip Melanchthon, who consulted astrological horoscopes, to help him decide on when to take long journeys.  Even Huldrych Zwingli, the early Swiss Reformer of Zurich, dabbled in believing in various “signs and portents” in the heavens.

However, it would be anachronistic to judge Christians from earlier generations, who appropriated ideas from astrology, before the age of modern astronomy. But when some Christian leaders today, speculate on whether or not the “Great American Eclipse” is a sign of God’s impending judgment against America, it is cringe-worthy. To her credit, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, is being pretty vague, but it bothered me that she uses the prophet Joel to encourage people to look for heavenly “signs”:

“The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.“(Joel 2:31 ESV)

Lotz neglects to tell the rest of the story. While the Bible does employ cosmologically rich language to refer to God’s judgment, the Bible also warns us not to look to the heavens for prophetic signposts. For the prophet Isaiah, astrology is condemned, lumping it along with all forms of occultism and sorcery:

12 Keep on, then, with your magic spells
    and with your many sorceries,
    which you have labored at since childhood.
Perhaps you will succeed,
    perhaps you will cause terror.
13 All the counsel you have received has only worn you out!
    Let your astrologers come forward,
those stargazers who make predictions month by month,
    let them save you from what is coming upon you.
14 Surely they are like stubble;
    the fire will burn them up.
They cannot even save themselves
    from the power of the flame.
“(Isaiah 47:12-14a)

So, for those planning on braving the traffic, to places like South Carolina, next Monday, enjoy the eclipse for what it is, a really cool display of God’s wonder and creation. It demonstrates the reliability, predictability and beauty of nature, which only a God of order and elegance can create. What a great opportunity to talk with friends about how awesome God is, as Creator!

But as for applying prophetic significance to the eclipse, as a reason why you might want to pull your money out of the stock market, to avoid financial ruin,… well, leave that to the astrologers.

Christians have other, better things to do.

 


Remembering Robert E. Lee, A Plodding Journey Towards Christ

The events this past weekend in nearby Charlottesville, are nothing but horrific and tragic. White supremacy reared its ugly head, and it surely needs to be condemned by anyone who claims to follow Jesus.

But what are we to make of the memory of Robert E. Lee, the chief, military figurehead of the Confederacy? The monument in Baltimore that was taken down last night, ascribed Lee to be a “Christian.” So, the controversy over how we should best remember the Confederacy, with their monuments, like that of Lee, is crucial, as I have written before, and it matters to people of faith.

R. David Cox, is a professor of history at Southern Virginia University, and he has written a quite helpful (and timely) book, The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee.  Cox researched a treasure trove of Lee’s letters, to construct a narrative as to how Lee understood his Christian faith. A couple of examples reveal a lot of Lee’s complex relationship with God.

A Brief Overview of Robert E. Lee’s Spiritual Journey

Robert E. Lee’s father, Henry Lee, suffered a severe injury, dying when Robert was only 11 years old. Henry Lee had been a decorated officer in George Washington’s Continental Army, during the American Revolution, and was otherwise known as “Light-Horse Harry” Lee. Henry (Harry) Lee was a child of the Enlightenment. He embraced a form of Unitarianism, as his faith.

Robert’s mother, Ann Lee, had grown up in Charles City County, Virginia, at Shirley Plantation. Unlike Robert’s father, Ann had become a devout Episcopalian, a Christian with a vibrant evangelical faith. Her husband had branded Ann as an “enthusiast.”

Young Robert E. Lee, though raised in the Episcopal Church, sought to distance himself from the theological and spiritual tension in his home. Like many Southern aristocrats of his generation, Robert mainly sought prestige and honor, and when he grew up, he served in the U.S. Army. In his mid-20’s he fell in love with Mary Custis, also from the Virginia aristocracy stock. But during their courtship, Mary experienced her own evangelical awakening. It seemed as though Robert E. Lee was unable to avoid the influence of evangelical faith in his life.

Mary Custis soon had her doubts about Robert, wondering if her prospective husband was ever really a Christian. Yet Robert persisted, and the two were eventually married.

Robert remained very quiet about his relationship with God, at least in the early years of marriage and family life. His conversion to Christ was evidently slow and prodding. He was not even confirmed as a member of the Episcopal Church until he was age 46. This was anything but a dramatic, instantaneous conversion. Like any Christian, conscious of their sin, Lee’s sanctification was incomplete.

So, it does not surprise me that there were elements in Lee’s character, that were not entirely transformed by the Holy Spirit, later in life. As the writers of the The Atlantic magazine have reported, as late as 1859, Lee had overseen the whipping of several runaway slaves, who were caught and returned to Lee in Arlington.

By the eve of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee’s theological outlook was one that struck some midway point between his father’s Unitarianism and his mother’s and wife’s evangelical faith. Lee emphasized the providence of God, primarily in a general sense, in his ambivalence towards slavery. On one hand, he viewed slavery as a moral evil. On the other hand, he believed that God, in His providential care, would eventually resolve the problem.

Likewise, when Lee was offered the command of the forces of the Union army, to put down the Southern rebellion, he stated that he would gladly liberate “the enslaved,” in order to have peace. On the other hand, he could not bring himself to strike a sword against his native Virginia. So, he declined the offer to lead the Northern army, and took a commission with Confederate forces.

It appears that it was his experience in the Civil War that eventually crystalized his vision of Christian faith, bringing him front and center before his Creator and Redeemer. When it became evident that the South had lost the war, Robert E. Lee saw this, once again, as the hand of providence. But this time, God’s providence was not simply general in nature. It was also personal, as he saw this judgment as being against himself, too. To a captured Union officer, whom Lee had known before the war, Lee said, “Patrick, the only question on which we ever differed, has been settled, and the Lord had decided against me” (p. 198). 

From a letter written to the rector of a church in Petersburg, where Lee worshipped during the last months of the war:

“God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply and his chastening hand is not yet stayed… How great must be our sins and how unrelenting our obduracy… We have only to submit to his gracious will and pray for his healing mercy… Now that the South is willing to have peace, I hope it may be accorded on a permanent basis; that the afflictions and interests of the country may be united and not a forced and hollow truce formed, to be broken at the first convenient opportunity. To this end all good men should labour.” (p. 198).

Lee’s conduct after the war, for me, exemplifies him more as a Christian leader, than anything else in his life. He could have run for public office, written memoirs to establish his name, or anything else that might have secured his reputation as the greatest military leader of the Confederacy.

Instead, Lee took the opportunity to try to revitalize the run-down Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia. There, Lee would spend the remaining years of his life, educating young men in what it meant to be “Southern gentlemen,” encouraging them not to revel in a “lost cause.” Rather, he sought to establish a school whereby the next generation would promote healing and reconciliation. It is still difficult to consider Lee’s ambivalent beliefs about slavery, but certainly, in the aftermath of the war, Lee gained moral clarity that he did not have before.

In the days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he had encouraged his soldiers:

The Confederacy has failed… As Christian men, … we must consider only the effect which our actions will have upon the country at large.… there is time to plant crops and begin to repair the ravages of war. That is what I must now try to bring about.”

In my mind, this is the description of a man, who understood his sin, and sought to commend himself to the mercy of God, pursuing a path of peace and reconciliation.

Making Sense of What Happened in Charlottesville

What makes this all the more poignant about what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, is that this is not the portrait of Robert E. Lee that the “alt-right” demonstrators were trying to display. As I understand it, James Alex Fields, the young 20-year old man, who drove his car into a crowd, killing one person, and injuring others, grew up in a father-less home. His disabled mother sought to raise her son, despite the anti-social struggles this young person had in making something of his life. Through his anger, he wrapped himself up in extreme white identity politics.

What a contrast this is with the vision of Robert E. Lee, after the war! Lee sought to take young men like this, model for them what it would be like, to live as a Christian, to try to work towards peace and reconciliation. It is recalled that Robert E. Lee, at what is now Washington and Lee University, abolished the mandatory requirement to attend Chapel services at the school. However, Chapel services still went on, and students still attended those services on a regular basis, knowing that Robert E. Lee would be there, too.

I can understand why so many people now want to see statues of Robert E. Lee removed from so many public places. The hurt caused by the continued legacy of racism runs very, very deep. We need to tell the stories of those who suffered under the Southern regime of racial slavery, a regime that often invoked the Bible as a type of defense, for this sin. At the same time, I wish there was a way to rehabilitate the memory of Robert E. Lee, that promotes healing, instead of firing up anger.

Perhaps, instead of having statues of Lee, with his sword, in full military regalia, mounted on his horse, Traveler, we should have something different. Perhaps, our monuments of Lee should show him as an educator, with young men, encouraging them to follow the path of Jesus.

I do not exactly know what that would look like. But perhaps it is worth thinking about.

 

The following lecture by R. David Cox was recorded at the Virginia Historical Society, June, 2017.


Moving Beyond Confusion with the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” (#7)

Fired up by enthusiasm, the theology of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is taking over the globe. But what is it exactly? (photo credit: Getty Images, Economist magazine)

The seventh (and last) in a multipart blog post series

Let me share with you some of my personal journey. When someone says “charismatic,” with respect to the Christian faith, it can evoke a lot of different reactions….

I have had a number of friends who would consider themselves as “charismatic,” as well as friends who are “non-charismatic.” I have helped to lead worship at a Pentecostal church, back in college, as well as church fellowships that take a rather dim view of all things “charismatic.”Some friends really look forward to worshipping at a “Spirit-filled” church. Others will not touch anything “charismatic” with a 10-foot pole. I even had a girlfriend years ago who dumped me because she said I was too “charismatic,” which was strange, particularly since I do not think I have ever genuinely “spoken in tongues,” and certainly never around her!

Like British Bible teacher John R.W. Stott was, I consider myself open to the charismatic movement, but I am cautious. Like Stott, I do not believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be turned on and off at will, like a water spigot. Sure, there is the whacky stuff associated with many TV evangelists that drives me crazy, but my main concern is theological. It all started with that awkward conversation with my high school friend, some thirty years ago, that I mentioned in the first blog post in this series. I lost track of her over the years, but the theological conundrum she left with me has stayed with me:

Clarke, have you received the baptism in the Holy Ghost?

In one sense, the inner turmoil turned out for the best. I had to search the Scriptures for myself, seeking God deeper in my prayer life, asking that I might be filled more with His Spirit, in obedience to His Word. I still desire that, today. For that, I am most grateful for that conversation.

But in another sense, the question left me in a state of needless confusion. I read books by John R. W. Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones on this topic, and both had very different conclusions. Which one was right? I would have conversations with various pastors, all sharing conflicting views on the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.”

How was I to make sense of it all? What does the Bible really teach about the “baptism in the Holy Spirit?” Continue reading


Power to Witness in the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” (#6)

Fired up by enthusiasm, the theology of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is taking over the globe. But what is it exactly? (photo credit: Getty Images, Economist magazine)

Continuing on, with the sixth in a multipart blog post series

Revival: The church’s greatest need.

So reads the back cover of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic Joy Unspeakable…. and Lloyd-Jones is still right!! How can the church accomplish her God-given mission without the inward, transforming power of the Holy Spirit?

Once you observe how Old Testament prophecy works in the New Testament, regarding the Holy Spirit, such as in the narrative portions of the Book of Acts, then the whole framework of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” falls into place. But not only does “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” in the Book of Acts fulfill prophecy from the Old Testament, it does so for a purpose, namely, that the believer might experience the power to witness for the sake of the Gospel. Continue reading


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