Category Archives: Scripture Notes

Don’t Share Your Faith?

Sharing the gospel isn’t only a biblical imperative, it’s also something every Christian should instinctively want to do.  If you love your Saviour, why wouldn’t you want others to hear about him?  However, someone could be held back by a Scripture passage which, at first glance, seems to tell us not to share our faith.  I’m thinking of Romans 14:22a, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.”  That could be understood as saying Christians shouldn’t evangelize.

When faced with an interpretive issue like this, it’s a good idea to look at other Bible translations, especially if you don’t know the original languages of Scripture.  Above I quoted from the ESV, a translation which attempts to be both literal and readable.  The New King James Version is similar:  “Do you have faith?  Have it to yourself before God.”  While the first clause becomes a question in the NKJV, it still represents essential a literal rendering of the Greek. 

This is an instance where the New International Version is helpful.  The NIV leans more to a “dynamic equivalent” approach to translation.  In this approach, being literal is less important than being understandable.  This approach has its pros and cons.  But in Romans 14:22a, the meaning is clearer in the NIV:  “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”  This translation makes it clear this has nothing to do with evangelism. 

With the ESV and NKJV, it is possible to discern that from the context of Romans 14:22.  The context has to do with convictions about eating clean and unclean foods.  However, the word “faith” usually refers to faith in God or in Christ and that can throw us off in verse 22.  Sometimes the word “faith” can also refer to the whole body of Christian teaching, as in “the Christian faith.”  But the Greek word pistis can occasionally also mean “conviction” or “belief about something” and so it is here in Romans 14:22a.

We can learn two things here. 

First, we’re reminded again that “a text without context is a pretext.”  You could remove Romans 14:22a from its context and make it sound as if God is telling us not to evangelize.  The context helps us see how such an assertion would be erroneous.  So remember to always study the context.

Second, we see that there are no perfect Bible translations.  I appreciate a lot of things about the ESV, but its literal approach sometimes hinders understanding.  I appreciate some things about the NIV, but its dynamic equivalent approach sometimes forces readers to adopt a questionable understanding.  The takeaway here is, if you have no training in the original languages, don’t study with just one Bible translation.  By using two or three together, you may be able to compensate for the blind spots of each one.  Bible Gateway has a great tool where you can easily add parallel translations to a passage you’re studying.  I’ve highlighted (in red) the button for this function in the screenshot below – it’s in the upper left hand corner of the tool bar. 


Every Believer Evangelism

Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”  Acts 8:4

Reformed Christians have sometimes been accused of being the “frozen chosen.”  Chosen by God’s sovereign grace, we’re frozen when it comes to evangelism.  We have cold hearts that don’t care about the lost and therefore do nothing about the plight of the lost in our lives.  Unfortunately, I think we have to admit that there’s been some truth to this.  To be sure, it’s not because of the doctrine of election.  There are other factors at work, some of them cultural, some personal, and some doctrinal.

One doctrinal factor I’ve encountered is a mistaken understanding of how evangelism is described in the Scriptures.  According to this view, evangelism is limited to special office bearers like ministers or missionaries.  Whenever the Bible speaks about evangelism, it’s speaking only about the official proclamation of God’s Word by one of these special office bearers.  Scripture gives no evidence or example of regular believers evangelizing.

At first glance, it may appear that Acts 8:4 supports this contention.  After all, it speaks about “preaching” and isn’t preaching something limited to special office bearers?  There’s a long tradition in English Bible translation of translating the Greek word used there as “preaching.”  It’s a tradition that extends to even before the King James Version, found with Wycliffe, Tyndale and the Geneva Bible.  Despite the tradition however, it’s arguably not the best translation for this word. 

The word in Greek is a form of the verb euangelizo  — the English word “evangelism” is derived from this word.  In general, it means to “bring or announce good news.”  Oftentimes it does have the sense of official preaching or proclamation, but not always.  Sometimes it simply refers to someone (anyone) speaking a message of good news.

What does it mean in Acts 8:4?  Here we need to look at the context.  Who were those scattered?  That’s referring to the believers in Jerusalem.  Acts 8:3 speaks of Saul ravaging the church, entering houses, and “dragging off men and women” and putting them in prison.  This was the great persecution of the church in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 8:1, which results in all the believers being scattered except the apostles.  So the apostles were not among those referred to in Acts 8:4.  In fact, it appears that this is just referring to ordinary believers from the church at Jerusalem.

In Acts 8:5, Luke draws attention to Philip, who has also departed Jerusalem, and preaches Christ in Samaria.  There are two important things to note here.  One is that Philip was a deacon, not an apostle, not a minister, and not an officially ordained missionary.  He was a special office bearer, but not one normally entrusted with the task of official proclamation.  The second important thing to note isn’t evident from the ESV Bible translation.  In the original Greek, there is a grammatical construction (the correlative conjunctions men…de) used in verses 4 and 5 which contrasts the two parties.  In simple terms, the grammar prevents one from arguing that Philip is meant as an example of the individuals mentioned in verse 4.  He is set apart from them by this grammatical construction.  The Holy Spirit still highlights Philip’s special role.

It’s only natural to conclude that verse 4 speaks of ordinary Christians spreading the message of the gospel.  In fact, I haven’t been able to find a commentary which asserts otherwise.  This is a clear example of believers evangelizing apart from the special offices.

But is the description of Acts 8:4 prescriptive for Christians today?  There are two angles we should explore.  One has to do with what the book of Acts is really about.  Our English Bibles label the book the Acts of the Apostles.  But Luke didn’t give it that title, or any title for that matter.  In Acts 1:1 he says that his first book was about what “Jesus began to do and teach.”  When Luke writes that, he intimates that his second book (Acts) is about what Jesus continued to do and teach.  We need to read Acts 8:4 in that light.  We may just see ordinary Christians spreading the good news, but the Holy Spirit wants us to see Jesus.  This is what Jesus continued to do – he worked through these believers who were united to him.  As Christians, we’re also united to Christ.  What we see him doing through these Christians, we ought to be doing in union with him too.

The second angle is closely related.  One can hardly imagine that these ordinary believers in Acts needed to be told to evangelize.  Because they were united to Christ, they wanted to.  They couldn’t help themselves.  They were compelled by love to spread the good news of salvation – compelled by love for their Lord Jesus, but also by love for the people around them.  When you experience the reality of life in Jesus Christ, you’ll want to speak about him every opportunity you get.  And you’ll be praying earnestly for those opportunities.  If we don’t have that attitude towards evangelism, we might very well question whether we’re even Christians at all.

Now Acts 8:4 definitely doesn’t exhaust everything the Bible teaches about every believer’s evangelistic calling.  There’s far more, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old.  But this one passage does prove that speaking the good news of Jesus Christ (evangelism) was something done by ordinary believers in the apostolic church.  Certainly no one can credibly claim on the basis of Scripture that God intends for this task today to be limited to men with seminary educations and titles before their name.


Human?

Hereditary chiefs of the Lake Babine Nation welcome a group of canoeists to their village.

Are First Nations people human beings or not?  Sounds like a strange question to us today, but to many people in the sixteenth century it wasn’t so clear.  In fact, in 1550, a debate was held in the Spanish city of Valladolid on that very question.  On the one side was Bartholomew de las Casas, a Roman Catholic bishop.  Las Casas argued that Native Americans are fully human just as Spaniards and therefore every effort should be made to bring them into the Roman Catholic Church.  On the other side was Juan de Sepulveda, a Dominican friar.  Sepulveda argued that Native Americans may appear human, but they are not capable of becoming Christians and that they should therefore be enslaved.  It’s not clear who won the debate, but both attitudes have been found throughout history.

There have been always been those who say the gospel is only for some people and not for others.  In the days before, during and after the ministry of Christ on earth, there were many who believed that the message of the Bible was only for Jews.  God wouldn’t want anything to do with the dirty Gentiles.  Think of Jonah.  Think of his attitude to Nineveh.

But what about us?  Where do we stand on the question of who the gospel is for?  In principle, we might easily agree that the gospel should go around the world to people from different cultures and nations.  It’s easy when we’re talking about people far away.  But what about closer to home?  How would we react if, say, the Lord were to begin gathering homeless people to our church every Sunday?  Or perhaps people with a variety of social issues.  What we would do if our pews started filling up with those sorts of people?  Would we eagerly welcome them?

What would our Master do?  To answer that, you might study his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30.  He met this Gentile woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Her daughter had an unclean spirit.  She heard that Jesus was in the area, so she seeks him and throws herself at his feet.  She begs for healing for her daughter.

Jesus gives her a curious answer.  He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  The comparison is implied:  the children are the Jews and the little household doggies are the Gentiles.  The bread is what Christ has come to bring in his life and ministry.  At first, the whole thing seems like a distasteful comparison, especially comparing Gentiles to doggies.

However, our Lord Jesus reveals himself to be a wise teacher who presents an argument to see what his pupil will do with it.  He wants her to make a good response so he can help her.  The woman has to justify her request.  She has to demonstrate her faith.  How desperate is she?  More importantly, how does she view Jesus and what he can do even for a Gentile like her?

Her retort to him is daring, shrewd, and at the same time stunningly humble:  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).  She recognizes his authority by calling him “Lord.” She doesn’t argue with him.  She acknowledges her low status.  She basically says, “Are you comparing me with a little doggie?  I’m in agreement with that.  I’m not a child in your house.  I’ll accept what you say and I’ll even find some encouragement in it because I know that even the little doggies get table scraps.  Can I please have some of the scraps?”  She recognizes that the Jews have a priority in the history of redemption.  But she believes that Jesus is also a Saviour for Gentiles.  She believes that he won’t turn her away empty-handed, but will also give bread to her.  He’ll restore the life of her beloved little daughter and set her free from this evil demon.  Jesus does.  He commends her faith and heals her daughter.

Unless you happen to be Jewish, by nature you’re in the same boat as the Syro-phoenician woman – all of us are little doggies.  But through faith in Christ, we’re transformed into true children in his family.  We’re fed with his food, nurtured by his love, and promised his inheritance.  We become everything human beings were created to be.  We should never cease to be amazed that this is all grace.  If we hold that thought in our minds, that’ll also bear fruit in the way we regard others, also others who aren’t in the same social status as ourselves, who look different, or who come from a different culture.  God’s grace has been wide and deep for us — it has to be wide and deep for them too and that has to be reflected in the way we interact with them.  It was that way for our Master Jesus in Mark 9.  He gave bread to this woman and didn’t hold her Gentile roots against her.  It has to be the same way for every disciple of Christ.


Christian, Don’t Suppress Your Identity!

I once heard a radio program about call center workers in India.  North American companies often contract out their call center work to cheap labour in India.  However, many North Americans get annoyed and agitated when they call that number and then hear someone who’s obviously from India.  So many call center workers suppress their Indian identity as part of their work.  They take extensive training to get rid of their Indian accent, they adopt American accents, take a Western name, adopt a Western diet and so on.  So when you call that number, Jim who sounds like he’s from Boston might really be Raj from Mumbai.

As Christians, we have a distinct identity in Christ.  Believers are united to him and that means that our identity is bound up in him.  Who we are is totally related to who he is.  What we’re like and what we’re becoming is entirely related to what he is like.  You can’t separate a Christian’s identity from Jesus Christ.

Yet that’s exactly what we’re so often tempted to do, isn’t it?  We’re tempted to divide our life up into little air-tight compartments.  This compartment is what I do for entertainment and it has nothing to do with this compartment that has everything related to being a Christian.  This compartment is for me at work and it has nothing to do with the “religious” compartment.  This compartment is for me on the Internet and it has nothing to do with the “faith” compartment.  The world insists that this is the way you should live.  If you have religious convictions, you must keep them in that air-tight compartment and don’t ever let them out.  It makes things uncomfortable for people around you if you do.  Our own sinful nature tempts us to do that too – after all, it’s much easier to take the compartmentalized approach to life.  The people at work are never going to give you a hard time if you just talk and act like one of them.  That’s what we mean by suppressing your identity in Jesus Christ, hiding the fact that you are united to him.

Scripture speaks to that temptation in several places.  For example in Colossians 3, Paul points out that believers who are united to the ascended Christ should let that fact always be evident.  Christians cannot ever suppress their identity, they can’t be hiding who they really are in Jesus.   If they have a new nature in him, it should be obvious in things like “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).  Our identity in Christ should be seen as we bear with one another and forgive one another (Col. 3:13).  Overarching it all, our identity in Christ should be evident in our love, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).  Finally, that identity is lived out by doing “everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).

Fellow Christians, we have to be who we are in the risen Lord Jesus.  No more identity suppression.


God’s Rainbow Sign

If you’re an Australian reader of my blog and have a WordPress account, you’ll probably see a rainbow banner at the top of this page.  Let me be clear:  that is not my doing, but something WordPress has done to try and promote the cause of same-sex “marriage” in Australia.  I repudiate it.  I have never supported SSM and never will — it is completely contrary to God’s good purposes and designs for humanity.

In response to what WordPress has done, let me share a message I delivered a few years ago in my last church.  This was a meditation on Genesis 9:12-16 and it was given prior to a Lord’s Supper celebration at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario.  It has been slightly edited for publication here.

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Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,

Isn’t it disturbing how something beautiful can be distorted and twisted for ugly purposes?  I recently mentioned how that old classic hymn “Amazing Grace” gets abused at British soccer games.  This morning as we briefly look at the sign of God’s covenant after the flood, we have exactly the same sort of situation.  A few years ago, I was looking at the church situation around False Creek in downtown Vancouver.  We were thinking of maybe trying to do something with church planting in that area and one of the first steps is to look at what’s already there.  There was hardly anything.  One of the very few churches that we came across was the Rainbow Community Church.  On the face of it, that’s a beautiful name for a church.  But unfortunately, you can imagine what kind of church it was.  The rainbow has been co-opted as a symbol of homosexual activism for a lot of years already.  It’s sad that such a beautiful and rich image has come to stand for something so contrary to God’s purposes.  In this environment, it would be easy for us to forget that the rainbow has an objective meaning assigned to it by God and it has nothing to do with the sinful and rebellious rejection of God’s natural order.

The story of the flood in the days of Noah is well-known.  There was great wickedness on the earth and God decided to do something about it.  He would send a flood to destroy nearly every living thing because of the sinfulness of man.  Among human beings, the exception would be Noah and his family, eight persons in all.  Among animals, there was to be at least a pair of each species.  The exceptions would be saved in the ark that Noah built.  In due time, the flood waters came upon the earth, Noah and his family and the animals found refuge in the ark and they were saved.  Everything else was destroyed.  God’s wrath came upon the earth through waters deep enough to cover all the high mountains.

As the flood began to subside, Noah began to explore the new world with the help of a raven and a dove.  They became his eyes over the earth.  Through them it eventually became clear that the waters were disappearing and soon enough Noah and his family and all the animals were able to disembark.  At the end of Genesis 8, we read about the very first thing that Noah did upon leaving the ark:  he built an altar to God and offered offerings.  These were pleasing to God and led him to promise never again to send a flood upon the earth.  He established his covenant with all creation.

What is a covenant?  There are different ways to define it, but it’s best to think of it in terms of a sovereign outpouring of God’s grace.  Through this gracious outpouring, God establishes a bond, a relationship with himself.  There’s a connection between himself and the other party or parties in the covenant.  It’s always good to think of the covenant in terms of relationship, it is a relational term.  That’s why we often think (or should think) of marriage in the same way – the marriage covenant is inseparable from the marriage relationship.  In Genesis 9 then, God establishes his covenant with all creation, a sovereign outpouring of his grace.

That covenant is described in the verses that we read together from Genesis 9.  A couple of features of it:  it was a covenant not just with Noah, but with every living creature.  It was to be an everlasting covenant – it would last into all future generations.  That means that it’s still in force to this very day.  Moreover, this covenant came with a sign, God’s rainbow sign.  There are three aspects to this sign that I want to briefly consider with you this morning.

First of all, the rainbow is something that God alone puts up in the sky.  This morning we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper and here too we have signs and seals of God’s covenant.  The bread and the wine are the signs and seals of Christ’s body and blood.   God brings these things to us through human agents or means.  The bread was baked by human beings, the wine was made at a winery.  People have brought these signs and seals and placed them on the table here this morning.  However, God doesn’t use human agents to paint rainbows in the clouds.  He does it without any human cooperation or involvement.  That points us to the fact that the covenant described here is one in which God completely takes centre stage.  His grace and mercy in coming to Noah are front and center.  Whenever we see a rainbow in the clouds, we can be reminded of God’s sovereign grace to us and all creation.

Second, the rainbow is something that God put up in the sky not only for our benefit, but also and more importantly as a reminder for himself.  God says that he will see the rainbow and remember the everlasting covenant between himself and all living things.  This puts the stress again on the fact that God is everything in this covenant.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to come back to that important word:  propitiation.  Remember: propitiation refers to the turning away of God’s wrath.  Propitiation is also evident here in Genesis 9 and specifically with God’s rainbow sign.  The Hebrew word for rainbow is literally “bow” and it’s usually used in the Old Testament to refer to a bow used in battle, as in a bow and arrow.  If you think about it, this makes perfect sense.  A rainbow looks like a bow on its side.

During the flood, God went to war against a world in rebellion.  The sin and violence on the earth aroused his wrath and that wrath was poured out through the waters of the flood.  In Genesis 9, however, God’s wrath has been turned away.  The divine warrior has laid down his bow.  The rainbow in the clouds is a vivid sign of that.

That’s where there is a connection between the sign in our text and the signs that we have before us this morning in the Lord’s Supper.  The rainbow was the sign that God’s wrath had been turned away after the flood.  The bread and the wine are signs that God’s wrath has been turned from us through the body and blood of Christ offered on the cross.  Whenever we see a rainbow, we are reminded of God’s covenant in Genesis 9 and the turning away of his wrath.  We’re reminded of his promises.  Whenever we take part in the Lord’s Supper and eat the bread and drink the wine, we are reminded of God’s covenant of grace with us, established through Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice.  Just as God will never again destroy the world with water, so because of the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood he will never pour out his wrath on us.

Brothers and sisters, the rainbow is still a sign for us today, a covenantal sign.  Whenever we see one, our thoughts should go to Genesis 9 and God’s promises there.  Our thoughts should also and more importantly go to Christ, the one who has turned away God’s wrath from us.  Some day, because of what Christ has done, all the saints who have ever lived (including us), will stand before God’s throne and we will together see a rainbow.  Yes, Scripture tells us that there is a rainbow in heaven.  In Revelation 4:3, we’re told that there is a rainbow around the throne in heaven.  Some day we shall stand before that throne.  That beautiful rainbow will be a colourful and powerful reminder that God’s wrath has been turned away, we have mercy and the forgiveness of sins, we have peace with him, we are welcome in his presence.  Today’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of that coming day.  Let’s eat and drink with joy, because we know that this great day is ahead of us.

Loved ones, the rainbow is God’s sign.  An unbelieving world can try to take it away from him, but they will never succeed.  The brilliant colours after a fierce storm will always be there for God to see and to remind him of his promises.  They will be there for us, to remind us to continue seeking refuge in the cross of Jesus Christ – the only place that one will be safe when the big storm of God’s judgment hits this earth one last time, not with water, but with fire.  AMEN.