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Archive for December, 2009

pocahontas-1Some friends invited me to see Cameron’s much-hyped Avatar yesterday, so I went happily.  I did not expect much from the storyline having already read a few reviews, but I thought it would be interesting to check out the technology for myself.

Usually, when a movie is hyped-up like this one has been it’s a big let down; however, I had very low expectations to begin with.  Much to my surprise, even with extremely low expectations Avatar succeeded in even greater disappointment.

It’s not just that the long and drawn out movie left me with a ringing headache.  It was that Avatar was really nothing but a $300 million Pocahontas – a la Disney, of course.

Corporal Jake Sully (Captain John Smith) is the military man who has lost use of his legs, but who through his avatar body composed of his own DNA and that of the indigenous Na’vi, is tasked with providing security while a team of scientists explore the territory of the planet Pandora.  However, when he gets separated from the science team, he is rescued by Neytiri (Pocahontas) and ultimately accepted by the Na’vi.  Sully then begins gathering intelligence on the indigenous tribe, while Neytiri, the daughter of the tribal chief (just like Pocahontas) falls in love with him and begins to teach him the ways of her people.

Like Pocahontas, Neytiri guides Sully through the forest of her world, teaching him of the connection between the people and the land and animals.  Unlike Pocahontas, this connection is not just spiritual; it is also biological.  They are actually connected – it’s a circle of life kind of thing.

Like Pocahontas’ Kocoum, Tsu’Tey, the alpha male of the tribe who is in line to be the next chief and is to marry Neytiri, despises John Smith, uhm sorry, I mean Jake Sully.

Like Pocahontas’ Mother Willow (tree) who provides wisdom and insight to the people, the indigenous Na’vi turn to the great tree, which is their deity, for wisdom and guidance.  It is through the great tree that all of the life on the planet is connected, and the great tree keeps the balance of nature on Pandora.

Like Pocahontas, in which the British came looking for gold, the Americans in Avatar were on Pandora to mine a mineral called unobtanium, which is found only on Pandora and which sells for $20 million an ounce back on our already emasculated planet earth.  Just like the British in Pocahontas, the Americans were willing to destroy the Na’vi’s homeland in order to obtain this unobtanium.  Of course, the climactic conflict in the drama is that the greatest deposit of unobtanium is found under the home of the Na’vi, which the Americans and their “Blackwater” type security force are more than willing to destroy.

Pocahontas’ villainous governor John Ratcliffe is replaced by Colonel Miles Quaritch who will go to extreme ends to accomplish the mission, even if it means eradicating the indigenous tribes.

Corporal Jake Sully becomes the hero of the Na’vi by connecting with Pandora’s circle of life, falling in love with Neytiri, being incorporated as a member of the tribe and helping to fight off the greedy American company whose sole interest is profit margin for their shareholders.

Avatar was an interesting propaganda experience with breathtaking cinematography and a horribly predictable cliche-filled storyline.  It was nothing more than an updated, souped-up, techno-$300 million version of Disney’s Pocahontas.  The only thing missing was the singing.

From a biblical perspective, Avatar, like Pocahontas, is evidence that mankind is created in God’s image and tasked with guarding and keeping the garden, creation.  Both Avatar and Pocahontas display how sin radically corrupts the imago dei and turns man to worship the creation instead of the creator.

These movies should remind us of our task as Christians, in whom the imago dei is being renewed and restored, to keep and guard the creation.  Let us offer a biblical response to the hysterical environmentalism of those who deny the creator and exalt the creature.

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One of the great joys of new parents is seeing their baby (or babies) for the first time while still in the womb thanks to the modern technology of ultrasound imaging.  As parents view this image of their child, they begin to look for recognizable features.  For both parents and grandparents this moment brings great joy.

On the other hand, it is interesting to consider this moment from the perspective of medical professionals.  To be sure, they too celebrate the joy of this moment with parents; however, unlike the parents’ sheer joy of seeing a baby with “ten fingers and toes,” when the medical team views these images they look at the various limbs and organs of the child in order to find and confirm evidences of appropriate fetal development.  In other words, in order to confirm the health of the baby, they look for sings that confirm the baby is growing properly.

Throughout God’s creation health is evidenced by growth.  Whether we consider the health of plants, animals or human beings created in the image and likeness of God, we understand that healthy organisms grow, while unhealthy organisms atrophy.  The same is true for the Christian.  It is only a recent phenomenon that evangelical Christianity has consumed itself with an evangelism that is separated from growth in grace and holiness.  In my own denomination (SBC) far too many churches settle for “converts” who never become true disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.  When we look at Scripture, however, there is clear indication that growth in grace is an evidence of true and healthy Christianity.  For this reason, as we prepare to enter a new year I want to challenge us to consider the necessity of growth in grace by meditating on the following passages of Scripture from the English Standard Version (ESV):

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own (Philippians 3:12).

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9-10, ESV).

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,  and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And this we will do if God permits (Hebrews 6:1-3, ESV).

So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.  Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation- if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good (1 Peter 2:1-3, ESV).

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Peter 3:18, ESV).

Now, lest you become discouraged by thinking you must sanctify yourself in your power, consider the promise that God has predestined us for sanctification:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29).

Therefore, He will work in us to bring about our sanctification:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

And because He is God He will bring to completion what He has begun:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

Now, you may be thinking, “What is my role?”  “Is this ‘let go and let God’?”  No, we must fight, but our fight is one of faith.  Here is a most wonderful promise to cling to, meditate upon and memorize:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,  by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Oh, that God would grant us growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ to a mature manhood in the new year, and may our growth be evidenced by our walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called in all humility, patience, love, resulting in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

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Hallelujah, What a Savior!

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Whether you realize it or not, we use salvation language on a daily basis.  “Seat belts save lives . . . Save the Children . . . Save the whales . . . Save the economy.”  However, when Christians say, “Jesus saves,” some people take great offence.  Why is that?

One reason biblical language of salvation offends is because it assumes that we need salvation.  If one were to ask, “From what do we need to be saved?,” the Bible unapologetically answers, “from God Himself.”  The God who is holy must respond to sin with righteous anger; He will in no way clear the guilty.  Because we are sinners, we need to be saved from God’s wrath (Romans 5:9).  Therein lies the rub, for people filled with pride do not see themselves as sinners.  Nevertheless, the Bible declares that sin is a universal problem (Romans 3:23), and it is because of this problem that we need a savior (Romans 5:8; 6:23).  It is within this context that the Bible declares, “Jesus saves.”

The very name Jesus means, “Yahweh is salvation.”  Matthew declared that the reason His name would be called Jesus was because He would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).  Thus, the Bible presents Jesus as the salvation of God.  But the question remains, “Who are His people?”  “Who did Jesus come to save?”  For this question, the Bible also has an answer.

First, Jesus came to save Jews (Israel).  Luke makes a specific effort to show that Jesus had all the Jewish credentials expected of Israel’s messiah.  He was circumcised on the eight day (Luke 2:21), and His mother Mary followed the purification and sacrificial rituals given by Moses (Luke 2:23-24, see Leviticus 12).  Also, the fact that Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish messiah is confirmed by two faithful and devout witnesses, and as the Hebrew Scriptures note, “on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed (Deuteronomy 19:15).  In regard to these two witnesses, Luke emphasizes that they were advanced in age.  In other words, it was these most devout, faithful and aged Jews who prophesied that Jesus was the long-awaited “Consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), the “Redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

Secondly, Jesus came to save Gentiles (non-Jews).  Probably quoting Isaiah the prophet, Luke records for the first time in his gospel that Jesus also came to save Gentiles (Luke 2:32, see Isaiah 42:6).  God’s plan of salvation included the Gentiles all along, “for [the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

The fact that Jesus is rejected by some is a fulfillment of prophecy, for Simeon prophesied that Jesus was appointed as a sign to be opposed (Luke 2:34).  The very message of salvation, that Jesus died to save sinners from the wrath of God by receiving God’s wrath for His people on the cross, is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, “but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks (i.e., Gentiles), Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  Hallelujah, what a savior!

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Why Do We Not Evangelize?

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In light of my previous post on Penn Jillette’s comments on proselytizing and our call to imitate Paul (1 Corinthians 11:1) to be all things to all peoples in order that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 9:19-27), it may be helpful to reflect on some reasons why we don’t evangelize.  In Evangelism Through the Local Church (12-17), Michael Green shares nine reasons why we may fail to evangelize.

1.  We may not think it’s our business to evangelize. At one end of the spectrum, we may have bought into the idea that religion is private, while at the other end of the spectrum, we may think it’s the pastor’s job.

2.  We may not have first hand faith at all. We may be church members.  Our theology may be orthodox.  We may be really nice people.  However, we may not be regenerate; we may not know Christ.

3.  We may not be sure where we stand with Christ. We may be genuine Christians, but we may lack assurance.  If we are unsure about our faith, how can we share with others?

4.  We may not be living very close to Christ. Whether through outright rebellion or general apathy, we may have wandered far from Christ.

5.  We may not be willing to pay the price. Evangelism may cost too much time.  It may cost our reputation.  It may be embarrassing.

6.  We may be afraid. We may be afraid of rejection.  We may be afraid of failure.

7.  We may be ignorant. We may not know what to say or how to answer someone.

8.  We may not be willing to identify with non-Christians in their own contexts. We may be surrounded with Christian friends and social networks that leave no room for non-Christians.  Or, we may not be willing to pursue friendships with non-Christians or with those who are different than we are culturally, socially, economically.

9.  We may not see a need to evangelize our friends. We may think all roads lead to heaven or we may simply not really believe the severity of God’s wrath and final judgment.

Why do you not evangelize?

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The apostle Paul became all things to all peoples in order to reach them with the gospel: that is, in order to save them (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22).  Atheist Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller (illusionists) shares why he thinks that if you believe in heaven and hell, you have to really hate someone not to share that with them.

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My brother and friend Thabiti has raised some legitimate questions about contextualization over at Church Matters.  His post is a model of how Christians are to speak to one another in love with a view to sharpening one another.

I sent him a personal response and he has graciously posted it.  I hope this open conversation is as helpful to you as it has been to me.

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Tim Tebow is the Real Deal

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George Diaz in the Orlando Sentinel explains why Tebow is the real deal.

Here’s one on Tebow and McCoy from ESPN just for fun.

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In an earlier post I introduced the biblical practice of contextualization.  We all contextualize; the question is whether or not we will contextualize well.  What are some ways we get it wrong?

Under-Contextualization: an unwillingness to contextualize because of . . .

Fear – Some Christians are unwilling to identify with particular aspects of people’s culture because they are genuinely seeking to preserve the gospel.  They may be motivated by passages that instruct us not to associate with this world (i.e., Romans 12:2; 1 John 2:15-17); therefore, they fear that identifying with unbelievers will compromise the gospel.

Legalism – Some Christians begin with the gospel but want to add other requirements which merely represent personal preferences or traditions.  We see this in the Galatian heresy where the Galatians began with the gospel but wanted to add circumcision as a requirement.  We may do the same thing when we see someone come to faith in Christ then expect that they should look a certain way, asking them to get a hair cut, change their clothes and remove their piercings.  Think of a missionary who travels to reach a tribe somewhere in the world, and he introduces Western clothing as the only appropriate dress for Christians and the King James Bible as the only authorized version of Scripture.  Of course it works the other way around as well.

Pride – Sometimes we are tempted to identify a particular culture as THE Christian culture.  Pride is evidenced in an unwillingness to forsake our “cultural” rights for the sake of the unchurched.  Our particular music, for example, is THE only acceptable biblical expression.  At a grotesquely sinful level, we identify with a particular culture, people or nation to the point of discrimination.

Laziness – Unfortunately, perhaps many of us are simply too lazy to be concerned about the hard work of contextualization.  We don’t want to learn about others and their culture; we don’t want to be uncomfortable; or we’re just simply to busy with our own lives that we don’t have time to concern ourselves with others.

Ignorance – Perhaps for too many Christians, they are just ignorant.  I pray this is the case.  Their hearts are not closed; they simply don’t know what to do.  In this case I would encourage us to begin by asking questions and being open to learning about the people whom we are trying to reach with the gospel.

Over-Contextualization: a willingness to embrace worldliness through . . .

Marketing – In my mind this represents a superficial attempt to “look” like the people you are trying to reach without any real effort to know the people you are trying to reach.  As an example take a church that wants to reach younger generations.  They may start a contemporary service where the preacher takes off his tie, and they think they are contextualizing when they are only marketing: marketing a particular service or a particular “brand” in order to attract a certain market niche.

Syncretism – In this case biblical parameters (1 Corinthians 9:21) are re-interpreted, relativized or completely set aside in an effort to reach people.  The result is that we become like the world, losing all distinction, and the gospel is devoid of power.

Contextualization requires continuous self-control and discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). It requires the self-control and discipline to learn about those who live in your mission field, to pray for them and to serve them in order to bring the gospel to them in an understandable manner.  Therefore, let us embrace the fact that we all contextualize, while asking ourselves whether or not we are contextualizing well.

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Why Did Jesus Come in the Flesh?

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Christmas can be a dangerous time of the year because in the midst of our celebrations, we may forget that there are others with great needs who face suffering and heartache during this season.  We need to consider that Christmas is a great time for ministry.  So, let us be compassionate and caring toward all, and seek opportunities to minister this Christmas.

There is an even greater reason why Christmas is dangerous; it’s dangerous because in the midst of all the lights and carols and candy and tinsel that help us celebrate the first coming of our Lord, we can forget just exactly WHY it was He came.

When we ask why Jesus came in the flesh, though, we are asking at the very least two questions.  First, we are asking, “Why Jesus came in the FLESH?”  In other words, why did Jesus have to take on human form?  The second aspect of the question is, “WHY did Jesus come in the flesh?”  In other words, what was the purpose of the incarnation-God coming in the flesh?  As we consider the reason for Christ’s coming, let me give two answers that I think begin to address both aspects of the question and lead us to bask in the glory of God’s beloved Son and our Savior, Jesus.

First, Jesus came in the flesh as our champion to destroy the devil and deliver us from slavery (Hebrews 2:14-16). A champion identified with a particular people and represented them on the battlefield against an enemy.  Perhaps the most famous champions in the Bible are David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17).  Goliath represented the Philistines, while David represented Israel and God.  As we know, David defeated Goliath and liberated Israel from present and future fear of the Philistines:  i.e., bondage.

Jesus is our champion sent by God to identify with us and represent us on the battlefield of this world against our enemy the devil.  By his incarnation Jesus both identified with us and represented us.  By His death and resurrection Jesus both defeated the devil and liberated us from slavery.  Consequently, because of Christ’s victory over sin and Satan and death, we no longer need to fear death (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).

Secondly, Jesus came in the flesh as our high priest to make a sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 2:17-18). As the high priest represented the people before God in the temple (Hebrews 5:1-3), so Jesus had to be made like us in every way (except sin: Hebrews 4:15; 7:26) in order to represent us before God.  Jesus is our high priest who offers Himself as the sacrificial lamb in our place (Hebrews 10:1-18).  Therefore, because of Christ’s high priestly work, we can draw near to God with confidence (Hebrews 10:19-25).

So, for a world full of fear and without hope, we remember this Christmas that Jesus came to defeat the devil by paying the penalty for our sin through His sacrificial death, so that all who put their trust in Jesus Christ as their champion and high priest have their sins forgiven and no longer need to fear death.

For a world full of suffering, we remember that since Jesus came in flesh and blood and suffered as a human being, then He is able to help us in our suffering as human beings.  Therefore, consider Jesus who has already run the course of this life and faced suffering and is now seated at the right hand of God, and you run the race of life with endurance, keeping your eyes fixed upon Jesus, the originator and completer of our faith.

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I have been pouring over 1 Corinthians 9 this week, and in so doing I have revisited some of the controversies related to the arguments for and against contextualization.  In particular, I have to wrestle with what contextualization means in a city whose “official” motto is Keep Austin Weird.  What follows are some lessons I have gleaned this week.

What is contextualization?
Simply put, contextualization is taking into consideration the cultural context in which we are seeking to communicate the gospel.  One missions strategist defines it as follows:

Contextualization is the word we use for the process of making the gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context. . . .

. . . The question is not whether we’re going to contextualize.  The question facing every believer and every church is whether we will contextualize well.  (See, Putting Contextualization in Its Place, 9 Marks, eJournal, July/August 2009)

One of the clear examples of contextualization we have in Scripture is the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where he reminds the Corinthians that even though they have certain rights in Christ, love demands that they should be willing to forsake their rights and become slaves to all in order to win more to Christ as Paul had (see 1 Corinthians 11:1).

What is the basis for contextualization?
The basis for contextualization is the incarnation of Christ.  Though he was God, he willingly forsook the glory of heaven in order to become a servant (Philippians 2:5-8).  When God chose to save, by consequence, Jesus HAD to become like us (sharing in flesh and blood) in order to save us (Hebrews 2:14-18).  Further, in the incarnation Jesus came into a particular cultural context (Palestinian Judaism) at a particular time in history (the first century).  Jesus forsook his rights and became a servant, and so should we (Philippians 2:5; 1 Corinthians 11:1).

What is the reason for contextualization?
Clearly, the reason for contextualization is the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).  Paul willingly forsook his rights so that he would not put an obstacle in the way of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:12b).  Paul “became all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).

What are the parameters of contextualization?
In other words, how far is to far?  Should we become cannibals if we are to reach cannibals?  Paul himself is clear that we identify with the people we are trying to reach within the parameters of Scripture.  In order to reach those outside the Law of Moses Paul identified with these Gentiles who were outside the Mosaic Law; however, even in doing so he remained under the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21).  Just as Christ came into the world and yet was without sin, so also Paul identified with the people he was trying to reach, seeking to avoid sin by obeying our Lord’s commands.  This is our model (1 Corinthians 11:1).

What contextualization is NOT!
Contextualization is more about removing obstacles to the gospel and identifying with the people we are trying to reach with the gospel.  Contextualization is NOT an excuse for becoming like the world (Romans 12:2; Galatians 5:13-15).  In a blog post, missiologist David Sills reminds us that:

Some mistakenly believe that contextualization means making Christianity look just like the culture.  However, contextualization is simply the process of making the gospel understood. . . .  In fact, much of what many call contextualization is simply an effort to be trendy or edgy.  It may be effective, it may attract a hearing, it may not be offensive to hearers, but that is not contextualization; that is marketing.

What might contextualization look like for us?
First, we must identify, as much as Scripture allows, with the people we are trying to reach. A good illustration is when Paul circumcised Timothy in order that he would be not become an obstacle to bringing the gospel to Jews (Acts 16:1-5).

Second, we must realize that such identification requires that we forsake our Christian rights/freedoms in order to become a servant to all.  We must ask ourselves if we are willing to forsake our personal musical tastes for the sake of the gospel.  What of our personal clothing choices?  Maybe even our eating habits?  It all depends on whom we are seeking to reach.

Contextualization is hard, diligent work.  It requires self-control (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) and continual discipline (9:26-27).  What is at stake is the gospel and the opportunity to share with all peoples in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:27; see also 1 Corinthians 3:10-17).  May God grant us the grace to deny ourselves in order to serve all!

Update: Here is Don Carson’s message on 1 Corinthians 9:23-27, from The Gospel Coalition Conference.

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