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Expository Speaking – What Is it?

In another of these ramblings I opined that telling a compelling story will often more than compensate for any “sins” of presentation. That is, if our story is good enough, people are willing to overlook “poor” writing, suspect grammar and stilted wording. I went on to suggest that we could improve our expository speaking and teaching by using elements of story in it. In my opinion, doing so would certainly make it a lot more interesting.

About the time I wrote that my wife and I had dinner with some long-time friends. During our conversation they mentioned that they missed hearing expository sermons. At the church they attend expository speaking is unknown – everything is topical.

This is nothing unusual. In my experience, it is the same in the majority of the churches with which I am familiar. Our friends speculated that the reason for this is that these preachers and teachers were trained to speak topically in Bible College. They don’t know how to do anything else. It wouldn’t surprise me if our friends are right. It certainly seems like those coming from the schools associated with our spiritual heritage tend to follow the same patterns in their pulpits. If this supposition is true, it’s disheartening to consider that the training people receive in Bible College is so limited. It’s even more disheartening to realize that so many are seemingly incapable of growing beyond the limitations of their education.

Actually, I suspect the situation is even worse. As we were talking it occurred to me that many preachers and teachers may not even realize that something other than topical speaking exists. They don’t know what expository speaking is. Back in 2006 my wife and I had a hand in starting a new congregation. Instead of having one main speaker, several of us would take turns. We all agreed that the majority of our speaking would be expository. However, it soon became apparent that some of the men didn’t really understand what expository speaking is. They approached the biblical text as though they were preparing a topical sermon. It took a bit of explaining before everyone caught on.

Advantages Of Expository Speaking

What are some of the advantages of expository speaking? One of the great advantages of expository speaking is that topics are covered in the same order and context as the Holy Spirit revealed them. Not only are a great many topics covered, but balance is maintained between them.

Another advantage for those who must speak regularly is that it simplifies the decision about choosing what to say. If one is systematically following a text, the next message will continue from where the previous message left off.

It also allows the speaker to deal with difficult or controversial subjects without being accused of choosing topics with malicious intent. No one can complain if a particular topic comes up in the normal course of events while systematically following the text of a Bible book.

Similarly, the speaker will not have to wrack his brain to find a topic on which to speak. Topics will be determined by the text.

Following a text in this way also preserves the continuity of Scripture. Systematically going through a text follows the original progression from one theme or topic to the next.

Another advantage to this kind of speaking is that it simplifies planning both for the speaker and all those who must coordinate with him. Once a series covering a particular text has been announced, everyone knows what the next lesson or sermon will be about – it will cover the next portion of the text.

What It Ain’t

That’s all well and good, but it still doesn’t explain what expository speaking is. Before defining it, let’s talk about what expository speaking isn’t.

1) Expository speaking is not the same as topical speaking. As suggested by their name, topical sermons are messages on a particular subject. At times our congregations need instruction or teaching about a particular issue. At times it is appropriate to speak on a certain subject because of events which have impacted the church family. For example, if there has been a tragic death in the body, the congregation may need a message which encourages and/or reminds the people of the hope we have in Christ.

While topical sermons are sometimes needed, there are potential dangers in relying on them too much. One potential problem relates to our weaknesses as presenters. No matter who we are, we have preferences and prejudices. Speakers, sometimes without even realizing they are doing it, have a tendency to prepare messages on the subjects which are dear to their own hearts. A speaker may also be tempted to present messages which are popular and avoid controversy. In the same way, we have a tendency to avoid certain topics. Speakers sometimes avoid certain subjects out of the fear of criticism.

The idea for a topical sermon may come from anywhere. In fact, this may be another danger. It can be tempting to present ideas and thoughts which we have gleaned from secular or worldly sources rather than God’s word. Some speakers decide what they wish to say and then try to find passages of Scripture from which they can justify what they present.

Sometimes a verse or passage of Scripture will suggest a particular topic. In fact, this is one of the best ways to choose a topic. Although the speaker does not explain or apply the Scripture which suggested the topic, at least the topic is biblical. Typically, the speaker will use the verse which suggested his topic as the launch-pad for the rest of his message. And if the speaker goes on to present what the Bible says regarding that topic, then his message fills a useful and needed function. However, this highlights another potential problem with topical sermons. In pursuing our topic we must be very careful not to take the passages which mention the topic out of context. It is very easy to make the Scriptures say things they do not by ignoring the context.

2) Expository speaking is different than what books on sermon preparation call “textual” speaking. In a textual sermon a speaker will explain a single verse or thought from the Bible. Such sermons can be very beneficial – particularly when they explain a principle or concept. As with topical sermons, however, the speaker does not explain the context of the verse he presents. His message is limited to that one verse though he may reference many other verses to help develop the theme. The danger of this method is that our explanation of the text may not be totally accurate or complete because we have not paid sufficient attention to the verses which come before or which follow our chosen text.

What It Is

So what is “expository” speaking?

Definition: A systematic explanation of a biblical text with the intent of applying it in our personal or corporate daily life.

‘Systematic’ – An expository message presents biblical truth in the same order as in the text upon which it is based. A series of expository messages progress through a book or long passage in order – the next message beginning where the prior one ended.

‘Explanation of a biblical text’ – The subject of an expository message is the biblical text itself. The meaning of the text is explained rather than using the text to illuminate a subject. Subjects will certainly be addressed in an expository message, but only within the context of the passage being discussed.

‘With the intent of applying it’ – An expository message will contain many facts; people will learn many things about the Bible. Though worthwhile, increasing people’s biblical knowledge is not the main purpose of expository speaking. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “…Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV) Instead, the intent and purpose of expository messages is to make the Scriptures practical. It is to teach principles which people can incorporate into their lives which will help them become more like Christ. It is to equip them for service in God’s Kingdom.

Many speakers avoid this type of message because they find it the most difficult type to prepare. It requires much study and thought to accurately present the meaning of the section of Scripture chosen for the message. The text also constricts and confines what the speaker may say – he is bound by the words of the passage under consideration. He is not free to go off on flights of fancy as he is while presenting topical messages.


I will use Ephesians 2:1-10 to illustrate the three different types of sermons.

A. Topical

While reading verse 10, the phrase ‘good works’ catches the eye. This might raise the question what ‘good works’ are. To find the answer a person would look up every verse good works are mentioned and prepare a message on the subject of good works. The verse in Ephesians has only suggested the topic. Neither it or the context will be explained in the message.

B. Textual

In contrast to a topical message on ‘good works’ a textual message would explain the whole of verse 10. A possible outline of such a message would be:

1) God created us

2) God’s purpose in creating us

3) Prepared in advance

In such a message verse 10 is considered in isolation. The surrounding verses are ignored. By ignoring context the presenter runs the risk of missing the greater purpose of the verse even though he has explained its meaning.

C. Expository

In contrast to a textual sermon, an expository message will explain an entire thought or a whole line of reasoning rather than a single verse. In this case, an expository message would include the entire passage of Ephesians 2:1-10 instead of just verse 10. A possible outline for such a message is as follows:

1) We were dead (Ephesians 2:1-3)

2) God made us alive (Ephesians 2:4-5)

3) The reason God made us alive (Ephesians 2:6-7)

4) The means by which God made us alive (Ephesians 2:8-9)

5) Our response to being made alive (Ephesians 2:10)

A Commentary?

I imagine that one of the reasons expository speaking has a poor reputation is that some speakers have the unfortunate tendency to forget the purpose of it. Their messages are scholarly commentaries in verbal form. They shower their audience with Greek and Hebrew words and the intricacies of grammar. Granted, there is a time and place where explaining the nuances of a word is helpful, or even necessary – particularly when there is no exact equivalent in English. There is a place to mention grammar – for example, to show the difference between a statement of fact and a command. But, particularly in a church setting, the purpose of expository speaking should always be to impact the lives of the hearers rather than to show off the erudition of the speaker.

Yes, expository messages are a commentary – of a sort. However, they should fall toward the practical end of the spectrum rather than the scholarly. For an example of how it should be done, consider how Jesus did it. When Jesus gave the parable of the sower, His audience didn’t understand the message. So, when they asked Him what it meant, He explained the meaning. He didn’t launch into a treatise on agriculture. He didn’t go into clinical detail about the causes of unbelief. He didn’t expound on how Satan influences the natural order of creation. He simply explained what each metaphor stood for. He then applied the teaching by asking each hearer to evaluate where he stood in relation to the spiritual conditions the metaphors describe.

It is my opinion that when we follow the same pattern by explaining Scripture in simple terms people can understand, and show people how the text applies to their own situation, our messages will come alive. I also believe that our churches will develop more depth and spiritual growth because we are intentional about implanting the Word into our hearts and lives.

Would That Elders Would ‘Eld’!

I’ve recently come across three different congregations which are facing the same problem. All of them are located in small-town, rural America. All of them are relatively small. All of them have members who are quite affluent. All three have recently lost their preachers. The question is what to do about it.

In the case of church 1, the preacher died. He was very up-front about his preexisting disease when the church brought him on. If I heard correctly, he lived longer than the doctors expected but was only able to serve for a few years. In spite of his brief ministry, he was able to unite the church and restore its reputation in the community. Outreach he began is still being carried forward. He is deeply missed and remembered with fondness.

In church 2, the preacher retired. It was one of those situations where he was asked to fill the pulpit temporarily and ended up staying 17 years. He and his wife developed close ties with the people. There was some growth during those 17 years, but not much. Since their leaving, tensions within the body have surfaced and some people have left. On a good Sunday, perhaps 30 people will show up.

Church 3’s situation is a little different. In its case, the preacher was called elsewhere to plant new churches. The congregation of conservative farmers heaved a sigh of relief to be shut of someone with big city attitudes and a surfer-culture background. Though there was some growth during the preacher’s tenure, he never really fit in.

Though the circumstances in all three congregations are different, they all face the same problem: How are they going to fill the pulpit? Who will lead the Sunday services?

Congregation 3 decided to hire an interim preacher while they search for someone to fill the position permanently. A retired Bible college professor happened to move to the area and they asked him to fill in. The congregation loves him and what he’s doing. From what I’ve seen, the man is doing a wonderful job. He’s unified the congregation. He goes out of his way to work with the Elders. He’s brought new life to several of the ministries. The problem is that he’s fairly elderly and doesn’t want the responsibility of a full-time position. He asked me to keep my ear to the ground for potential candidates. “The pool of qualified people who are willing to work in a rural environment is pretty small,” he said.

Church 2 has chosen a more innovative route to fill their empty pulpit. They’ve been inviting speakers from congregations in other towns to come in each Sunday. A retired preacher from another state is in the process of re-locating to their town and he speaks fairly often, but they still want outsiders to fill the majority of the slots.

Congregation 1 went still another route. The Elders have set up a speaker rotation where they and other men from within the congregation do the majority of the speaking and teaching. Only occasionally will they ask someone from the outside to bring a sermon.

Three congregations with three different solutions to a common problem. But something which intrigues me about the situation is how strong the pull of church tradition is. All three congregations feel the pressure to conform to the “pulpit minister” system we are all so familiar with.

I get the impression that church 3 cannot envision anything else. They would find it extremely difficult to function without an appointed preacher who also functions as the chief decision maker and spiritual guide. Though the church has Elders, it seems to me that they primarily function as business managers. Most, if not all of them, would feel extremely out of place delivering a sermon.

Church 2 is considerably smaller than the other two. They have a few men who can teach a class and/or prepare a sermon but, I readily concede, the church does not have the depth of talent as the others. As one of the leaders put it to me, “I have a business to run. I can’t give the church the time and attention it needs without neglecting the business. I can’t give the business the attention it needs without short-changing the church. It seems to me that you can’t be an effective Elder unless you’re retired.” That dilemma increases the pressure to hire a full-time minister. It’s causing tension within the group. A majority seem to like hearing from outsiders, but others want the stability of someone full-time. The retired preacher who is moving into the area came with the specific understanding that he would help out by doing some of the speaking and teaching but would not become the pulpit minister. In conversations with me he freely acknowledged that the one-man-band model isn’t biblical. Yet, recently, he seems to have changed his mind. He wants the church to put him on full-time. He apparently said that without a pulpit minister the church won’t have legitimacy in the eyes of society.

Church 1 seems to be flourishing. From what I can tell the speaker rotation is bringing depth and variety of insight to the congregation. The Elders are growing closer to those under their care as they actively shepherd the flock. As a result, people are growing in Christ. Yet, the pressure to hire a preacher is still strong. The Elders are seriously considering doing so. Fortunately, there is push-back from the congregation. As one man told them, “Don’t you dare hire someone to do your job!”

That statement raises an interesting question: Why should a church hire a preacher or minister, anyway? Why do we need them? I think the answer is in what we used to call them. Preachers and pulpit ministers used to be called evangelists. Now think for a moment what a difference it would make if churches hired evangelists, not to fill their pulpits, but to do what their title implies! Let’s leave the pastoring to actual Pastors (that is, the Elders) and require our evangelists to get themselves out of the four walls of the church building and actually start evangelizing among those who need to hear the Gospel. If only Elders would ‘eld’ instead of expecting the preachers they hire to do the speaking and teaching! It would revolutionize and re-vitalize the church.

Let Go!

I stared in amazed consternation at the contents of the Communion tray. It contained those commercial Communion wafers – the kind that look like, have the consistency of and taste like recycled Styrofoam.

After the service I asked the missionaries who were hosting me about it. The wife explained: “The preacher asks us to bring them in from the States for him.”

“But why?! Why not use local ingredients? Communion bread is easy enough to make.”

“Well, the preacher insists on preparing Communion himself each week. There’s no way he could make the bread.”

“It seems to me,” I said, “that preparing Communion would be something to delegate. It would be an excellent way to get others involved in ministry.”

“Oh, there are plenty of people who would be delighted to do it. The problem is the preacher won’t give anyone a key to the building.”

After a few mild comments expressing my astonishment I prudently bit my tongue. Nothing would be gained by saying what I really thought.

I’ve already written in these musings about Missionary Failure. Granted, it was my first visit to that part of the world. I know very little of the background and the circumstances. There well may be mitigating circumstances of which I am not aware. However, here in my opinion, was a clear case of missionaries encouraging dependency and reinforcing destructive behavior.

But the question which has plagued me ever since, is why church leaders cling so tenaciously to power. What was the preacher so afraid of that kept him from giving a key to anyone else even though it was clearly in the best interests of the congregation to do so?

Mind you, I am no stranger to power-grabs by corrupt and venal men (and women pulling strings in the background!). The church has had that problem almost from the start. Paul warned Timothy about men who think that godliness is a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:3-5). But this man, by all accounts, was neither corrupt nor venal. Why, then, couldn’t he bring himself to let go and delegate? What is it that prompts good men who love the Lord to sabotage their own long-term success by crippling the churches they lead?

Only God knows the heart and I don’t pretend to know what prompted this particular man to cling so tightly to his prerogatives. However, I’ve been around long enough and felt some of the temptations myself, that I can suggest a few generalities.

I suspect that one reason good men cling to power is a genuine fear that if they are not vigilant, and don’t keep a tight hand on the reins, people with fewer scruples will seek power and try to use the church for their own agendas. This can be a legitimate concern. We certainly don’t want to give anyone authority unless they also have the character to use it responsibly. But how does one learn responsibility? How can people develop the skills the church needs and learn to serve unless we give them the opportunity? The irony is that the more we cling to power, the more we set things up so that eventually there will be a power grab. We will have created the dictator we hoped to forestall by holding all the power within our own hands.

The very fact that we’re worried about who has the power shows how skewed our thinking is. Leadership in the Lord’s church is not about power and control. It’s about service. But didn’t Paul say that the kingdom isn’t a matter of talk but of power? (1 Corinthians 4:20) He sure did, but to what power was he referring? In the context, Paul was speaking of the Spirit’s power. “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5 NIV) Paul’s point was that when we try to accrue power to ourselves, we hinder the working of the Spirit who is the true source of power. The paradox is that we receive true power only when we relinquish it.

Another reason church leaders cling to power is the genuine desire to make sure things are done right. We often have the feeling – and sometimes it is legitimate – that no one can do the job better than we can. We will not turn responsibilities over to others because they will botch it. Or at least they won’t meet our standards. Though this may be true, to use it as an excuse to hold on to everything is, at best, short-sighted. I think that in the midst of running all their programs and preparing well-crafted sermons, leaders often forget one of their main responsibilities. It is to help others discover their gifts of ministry and train them for it. Isn’t that why Christ gave leaders to the church in the first place? (Ephesians 4:11-13) We also tend to forget that however talented we may be now, we hadn’t always attained our current level of perfection. No, we too had to learn. We too made plenty of bone-headed mistakes. We too fell far short of the standards of those who had been in the ministry for decades. We forget that it takes practice to develop any skill. How do we expect anyone to become proficient unless we give him the opportunity? We will never have competent teachers or speakers or councilors or administrators unless we train them, give them responsibility and allow them to fail.

However, there’s also flip side to this. Some leaders won’t give up control because they are insecure in their own place in God’s order of things. They’re afraid that if they train someone and give him opportunity to use his talents, that person will turn out to be a better speaker or teacher than the leader. God forbid if the congregation should like his classes or sermons better than mine! We’re like the proverbial crab-bucket. Instead of rejoicing that God has given someone a greater gift than ours, we must pull everyone down to our level and keep them there. And then we wonder why our churches don’t seem to make much progress!

When I asked the preacher who refuses to give a key to the church building to anyone why the congregation doesn’t have Elders, he said that men just don’t seem interested in church. It was obvious that this bothered him and he didn’t know what to do about it. Not knowing the situation, I didn’t know how to respond. It was only later when I learned about his holding onto power that I began to catch a glimmer of what the problem might be. Why would any man with gumption or leadership potential take interest in the church when there is little or no scope for ministry there? By refusing to let go, we doom the church to ineffective mediocrity.

Though our motives for clinging to power may be good, it seems to me that it really boils down to a lack of faith. Think about it. Christ calls us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow. Holding on to power is the exact opposite of that. By holding onto power we put ourselves first instead of last. By holding onto power we cling to our rights and prerogatives rather than die to them. By holding onto power we chose our own way instead of following behind Jesus.

It takes faith to let go. It takes faith to follow the example of the One we call Lord when He turned His ministry over to 11 confused, selfish and sometimes petty men. There’s no doubt that Jesus knew better than they did. There’s no question He was far better at serving. There’s no contest when it came to who knew the Scriptures better. But Jesus turned things over to them anyway. In fact, He said that it was for their benefit that He left (John 16:7). It was only after Jesus entrusted the disciples with the work that they finally came into their own and “turned the world upside down.” (Acts 17:6)

Thank the Lord, the disciples learned the lesson and followed Jesus’ example. What would have become of Paul if Barnabas hadn’t mentored him? Would we have the New Testament in its present form if Barnabas hadn’t seen the potential in Paul or John-Mark? Would we even know who Timothy was if Paul hadn’t mentored him? We can ask the same questions about the “beloved physician” Luke.

When will we have the faith to follow in their footsteps and let go?!

It’s A Village?

We often don’t realized just how blessed we are until we remember the “Good Old Days!” I wrote the following tale back in 1992. As you shall see, communication was not as simple back then as it is now.

(If I like your face!)

I try hard not to be cynical. I really do. But every time I read an article that claims that a computer user can now exchange data with everyone else in the world, I tend to wonder which cloud the author’s head is in. Perhaps their definition of the world is different than what “the rest of us” have to deal with. To be fair, maybe you can communicate to anyplace in the world if you are a Fortune Five Hundred company or you have mega-bucks to fling at the problem. However, the outfit I work for doesn’t qualify on either count – and herein lies a tale of what trying to communicate with the rest of the world is really like.

From the corporate point of view our office is minuscule; the staff consists of five people total, and one of them is part time. Size not withstanding, we need to exchange data on a regular basis with a branch office in a third-world country. Now mind you, this country isn’t nearly as third-world as some. In comparison with others it really has quite a few things going for it, including some brilliant technologists who have clout with the government. In spite of this, the first problem we ran into was the lack of communications infrastructure.

Back in the days when the branch office was established, the waiting list to get a telephone was about ten years unless you had a lot of “connections” (pun intended) and were willing to bribe a few people. Even if you were so fortunate as to get a phone, all international calls both outgoing and incoming, had to be placed through an operator with waits of up to three days before a connection could be established. Needless to say, the health of the local exchange was not high on the priority list when locations were being chosen. Obviously, if it couldn’t happen face to face, all communication was going to occur by mail or cablegram. Over the next fifteen years however, things changed. Telephones became more readily available and moved down in price to where the average city dweller could at least dream of perhaps owning one some day. Even more encouraging was the assignment of “city codes” to the major population centers and the inauguration of direct-dial to the country from the U.S.

Suddenly, the health of the local exchange became important. Our branch office applied for a phone line only to find out that none were available. The exchange was at capacity. Due to factors that don’t concern this article, the office could not be relocated so we had to wait two more years for another exchange to be built!

At last a telephone was obtained. Now, we thought, data communications should be fairly straight-forward. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the branch office to establish an account with an E-Mail provider. The idea was that they could call a local number to check their mail-box and let the service provider worry about how the messages got transferred to and from the U.S. We were encouraged in this delusion by the Electronic Messaging Directory and Buyer’s Guide put out by AT&T EasyLink Services, which listed a representative in the country of interest. We’ve used Easylink for years with satisfaction. This was going to be “duck soup.” I duly sent a Telex to the representative requesting information on how our branch office could establish an account. I must say they were prompt. Within two days they replied in part:





Uh, thanks but no thanks! I’m trying to exchange data, not run a communications company. In any case I don’t need two people complete with furniture to handle half an hour or so of traffic per week!

I’m not aware of any other E-Mail provider having a rep in the country. However, a friend suggested that we might be able to communicate via bulletin boards. Now this was an innovative approach that I hadn’t thought of. The thought of dumping a file on a local board and having it show up a while later on the other side of the world is alluring. Who cares if it takes a couple of days for it to wend its way through cyberspace? It sure beats fifteen days or so in the mail. There was only one major snag – neither the friend nor I could find a single board anywhere in the nation that has a gateway, no matter how far removed, to the country in question! Yep, we really do live in a “global village” – if by village you mean parochial.

By now you are probably wondering why we don’t just dial up a computer in the branch office directly from the U.S. Well, this is exactly the approach we decided to pursue, which brings me to the second great impediment to world-wide communication for the little guy: ignorant and indifferent vendors.

To shove data over a dial-up line (and more than likely, a satellite link) to the country in question is not a trivial matter. Remember those “…spurious voltages and severe cross talk…?” This job is going to require some heavy-duty error correction as well as high speed and data compression to keep connect charges within reason.

After quite a bit of research (wading through reams of jargon) I selected THE modem. It is manufactured by one of the “biggies” whose name starts with M. Let’s call it model Q. It so happens that M is a big enough “biggie” that you probably aren’t going to find very many of them mail-order. Not to be deterred, I sent faxes to four large vendors who claimed that they carried the M line, requesting further information and prices. Of the four, how many responded? Only two. Of the two, how many were willing to quote me a price? Only one. And they were three thousand miles away. Not much chance of examining the manuals to make sure I hadn’t overlooked something.

Not to be deterred, I betook myself to a major computer show. While browsing down an aisle my eye caught sight of a prominent banner from the M company hung in a large booth. I made my way thither and made my desire known for modem Q, quantity two. Said the stuffed shirt in charge of the banner, “We sell communication solutions, we’re really not interested in selling modems. Why don’t you go talk to Tom across the aisle? He might be able to help you.” Now, I could have sworn before I got to that booth that a modem was a communication solution. But, we all live and learn.

In due course of time, I made my way to Tom’s booth. The conversation which ensued went something like this:

Me: “Hi, I was referred to you by Stuffed Shirt across the aisle.”
Tom: “Oh, the King of Sleaze! What can I do for you?” (This, while giving me a look as if he didn’t know if he could trust someone who had been sent to him by the King of Sleaze. I felt like asking him if I could trust someone recommended by the King of Sleaze, but my Mama taught me to be polite. Besides, I wanted some modems, not a fight.)
Me: “I’m trying to establish a data link between here and country … and am interested in buying two model Q modems.”
Tom: “Well, it’s a matter of finding a modem that has been homologized for the country.”
Me: “Enh? Homol… What does that mean?”
Tom: “I’m not really sure, but it’s something the company has to do. Hey Dick,(this to a rep from a different company, not company M, that was sharing the booth) do you have any modems that have been homologized for …?”
Dick: “Can’t say that we do. I don’t recall hearing about it. But, even if we do, you’ll probably have to buy it from an overseas distributor.”
Me: “But, I want to thoroughly test the system before I send it over to make sure that everything works. It’s slightly difficult to troubleshoot a problem when you’re twelve thousand miles away.”
Dick: “Now that’s a bit of a problem. I know of a case where a company needed a modem that was homologized for Greece. They had to buy it there and ship it back here to do their testing. You might be able to work a deal though, where the factory credits the foreign rep for the sale and ships you the modem direct.”
Me: “What is this homogin… er homol… er this process? Does each country require a special version of the modem or something? I’ve already checked and the telephone people in … don’t really care what you hang on the phone lines as long as you tell them about it.”
Dick: “I’m pretty fuzzy on it, but its something the manufacturer and the foreign country have to do together. That’s what we have a foreign division for. I’ll check with them to see if we’ve got something or not.”

I left the booth after this slightly surreal conversation sans make, model numbers and price, speculating on the meaning of a new word. The cynic in me wondered whether it described the process of bribing the appropriate customs authorities in the destination country to let the product through without too high a tariff. Incidently, neither Tom nor Dick has called me back with any information.

The next day I was favored with a conversation with the area distributor for company M (a quite decent chap as it turns out). He informed me that a model Q had been put on display at the show that morning at such and such a booth. I didn’t inform him that I had already had an encounter with Stuffed Shirt at that booth. However, not to be deterred, I went back to the show.

Sure enough, there sat model Q in the flesh. As I was ogling the sticker to see whether this beast was capable of working properly on 50 Hz power, Stuffed Shirt meandered over. I reminded him that he had previously sent me packing to Tom. Quoth he: “I knew that once you’d had a look at those jokers you’d be back. Can I tell you any tall tales about the model Q?”
Me: “I’d like to know the price.”
Stuffed Shirt: “I don’t do prices. That’s Harry’s department. Say Harry! Is the model Q on your price list?”
Harry looking offended: “I don’t use a price list! All the prices are in my head.”
Me: “Well, could you tell me what it is for the model Q?”
Harry: “This one? Hmmm… it looks like about $…., it is 2400 baud isn’t it?”
Stuffed Shirt glancing in my direction for confirmation: “No, its supposed to be 9600.”
Harry: “Oh, well in that case it’s $…. (a price an even two hundred higher than what he’d said before)
Have you seen the model H?” (made by a different company that as far as I know they don’t carry)

Lest the reader take me to task for having the effrontery to bother these eminent personages with my trivialities, I should point out that the modem in question carries a list price of a cool nine hundred bucks per each. Now I don’t know about where you work, but if I messed around with a potential source of that kind of change as these gentlemen messed around with me (I had the company checkbook in my hands while talking to them), the very least thing that would happen, is that my boss would coin some highly original maxims for my sole benefit.

At long last I got the modems. But, it wasn’t from Stuffed Shirt, Tom, Dick or Harry. I’ve got enough troubles without those clowns on board. Seriously, one of the reasons communication is so difficult is that those who are supposed to have the solutions often know less than the customer and don’t seem to give a rip anyway. Are they independently wealthy, or do they make their living by selling drugs instead of equipment?

There is a third impediment to international communication. The government controlled utility in the country where our branch office is located supplies power at a nominal 220 Volts, 50 Hertz. I use the word nominal advisedly. In reality the voltage varies anywhere from 195 to 230 and the frequency varies from 48 to 53 Hz. I know cuz I’ve measured it. Dealing with differences in voltage is easy – just use the appropriate transformer. Frequency is another matter altogether. It is not easily changed. So, what happens if you plug something designed for 60 Hz into a 50 Hz source? Due to the nature of A.C. power, at a given voltage and load there will be more of a current flow at 50 Hz than at 60. The result is that if the engineer hasn’t used at least a ten percent “fudge” factor in designing the power transformer in your power supply, it’s going to “blow.” Even if it doesn’t “blow” it will over-heat and will probably fail in time.

This is why I examined the sticker on the modem to see whether it mentioned 50 Hz. The majority of the computer equipment available in the U.S. is designed to run exclusively on 60 Hz power, and you can’t be sure what is or isn’t just by reading the spec sheets. I’ve learned by experience that you had better check the tag on the equipment itself. Furthermore, don’t assume that just because one piece of gear is rated for 50 Hz, that everything else from that manufacturer will be. Some models are, and some ain’t.

How bad is the problem? In the system that I assembled for the branch office we wished to include a laser printer in the thousand or so dollar range, and a cheap 9 pin dot-matrix. I found maybe three lasers, and exactly one dot-matrix that were rated for 50 Hz and that were in the price bracket that we had set! Only one of the lasers came close to having the features we were after.

And then, there is the matter of finding an appropriate uninterruptible power supply. Can’t they make the wretched things with a switch or two so you can select the nominal input frequency and the desired output frequency? If I buy a unit designed for 50 Hz, how can I test the thing here in the U.S. office with the rest of the computer gear before I ship it over the water? How do I know it isn’t “dead” right out of the box? Once it reaches the destination country it would be virtually impossible to get it back to the manufacturer while under warrantee, and in the meantime, the system is without protection!

The skeptics among you no doubt have questions:

1) Why don’t you just buy the stuff in the other country?
Answer: a) Much of it ain’t available. b) What is available costs more than it does here. c) I have to go there to set it up and train the guys how to use it. I don’t want to get there only to discover that an essential ten dollar part can’t be had for love or money – this puppy works, and works right, before I climb on that plane!

2) Can’t you special order gear that is configured for the power in the destination country?
Answer: Yes, provided you’ve got time and money and they don’t force you to buy it via Greece! Street price for a 220 Volt modem Q is a hundred and ninety dollars higher plus a couple of weeks. As far as I know, the only difference is the transformer you plug into the wall.

The Taiwan PC clone makers have been vilified from one end of the trade press to the other, but I say God bless ’em! At least they have enough sense to use a 50/60 Hz transformer in their power supplies, and to provide a switch for 115 or 220 volt operation.

So why don’t manufacturers add a few more turns of wire to their power transformers so they’ll work elsewhere in the world? As far as I can tell there are two reasons:

1) Manufacturers are afraid that “gray marketeers” will undersell their local distributors with goods purchased in a different market. In other words, politics. Maybe it’s about time somebody realized that it is in the manufacturer’s best interest to sell as many machines as possible whether they are sold in the “gray” market or not. It’s the local distributor, not the manufacturer who gets hurt by the “gray” market. In my opinion, if the local distributor can be drastically undersold, his prices are too high and he deserves to get hurt. Besides, if you must control distribution, isn’t there a better way to do it than by crippling your equipment?

In all fairness there is a problem with warrantee service. It’s not right for the authorized dealer to get stuck with service charges on units he didn’t sell. However, if the human race is clever enough to invent a computer, it must have the smarts somewhere to figure out a system that removes artificial trade barriers in an equitable manner.

2) Adding a few turns of wire and possibly a switch adds a few cents to the manufacturer’s cost. But, if the Taiwan clone makers can do it, why can’t others? Can it really be more expensive than maintaining different models for different regions of the world? Even if it does end up touching the profit margin a little, I think that they would be more than compensated by the good will it would generate from customers. For example, who likes being forced to change their computer gear because they got transferred overseas?

So there it is. I happen to moonlight as a computer consultant. If it’s been difficult for me to solve what should be a routine problem, I shudder to think what those who do not have my skills and resources must go through. We’ve come a long way to be sure, but it’s still a long, long way to Tipperary.

Note: Since the days described in this article, the Internet has changed everything. It is the rare person in the third-world country mentioned who doesn’t have access to E-mail and social media. We no longer have to worry about the quality of land-lines or the capacity of the local telephone exchanges. The joke going around is that the first thing people do when a baby is born is put a mobile phone in its hand. There’s some truth to the joke. And most of those phones are smart-phones. Now, instead of having to book a call through an operator, people – even in the back of beyond – can phone me directly. Instead of wondering whether the line will be clear enough to hear the person on the other end, assuming I can get a connection at all, I routinely use video conferencing. Instead of waiting weeks for the postal service to deliver crucial data (assuming they didn’t lose it or it didn’t get hung up in customs) we can easily download or upload it in seconds. When someone starts romanticizing the past, I just smile.

The Etiquette Of Heaven

As I left the podium someone in the audience called out, “You did not disappoint.” Though the remark gratified, it sort of rolled off me. However, his remark became more meaningful a few minutes later when I asked my wife how the previous speaker had done. I didn’t have the opportunity to hear him as I was teaching the youth at the time.

“It was a total bomb!” she said. The vehemence of her reply rocked me back on my heels as she is normally so gracious and quick to point out the positive. It seems that the speaker – a young man, newly married, without children, just starting out in ministry – declared to his incredulous audience that from that moment forward they could live their lives without sinning. (Please note that I do not hold those attributes against the man. I only mention them to point out his lack of experience and seasoning.)

Setting the Scriptures aside, just based on my own experience of living the Christian life – for many more years than the speaker has been alive – it’s a proposition I would not want to try to defend. Particularly to an audience containing several preachers, Elders and other church leaders.

To do the man justice he never got the opportunity to explain how one could achieve this state of perfection. Members of the audience interrupted him long before he could complete his sermon. They pointed out that the Scriptures clearly indicate that Christians do sin. To his credit, the preacher did not get angry or become flustered as he explained away the texts people quoted to him. For example, he claimed that the struggle Paul describes in Romans 7 refers to the time prior to Paul’s conversion.

Finally, an Elder said, “Folks, what he’s trying to say is that we shouldn’t automatically assume that we’re going to fail. After all, a sports team doesn’t go onto the court assuming it’s going to lose. When we’re tempted we shouldn’t assume that we’re going to give in to it.”

However, according to my wife, that’s not what the man was trying to say. He flat-out claimed it was possible to live without sinning at all.

Is he right? Is it possible to live without sinning? In a sense, yes. God imputes Christ’s righteousness to those who “put on Christ.” That means that when God looks at us, He doesn’t see us but, rather, the sinless Christ.

In another sense, however, I think that those who claim to be without sin show a profound lack of understanding about what sin is.

When most people think of sin they probably have the “sins of commission” in mind – that is the violation of direct commands. Personally, I find avoiding the “thou shalt not” commands fairly easy. More difficult to put into practice are the positive, “do this” commands. I commit a “sin of omission” when I fail to take action.

There’s another “sin of omission” which is even more difficult to avoid. These are the things we ought to do which are implied by the prohibitions. For example, take the command against giving false testimony. I find it relatively easy to refrain from lying about someone. However, the prohibition also implies a responsibility to speak the truth. I find it much harder to stand up for someone. It’s all too easy to let myself off the hook by saying it’s none of my business. So long as I haven’t said anything untrue about the person or the situation, I’ve fulfilled my responsibility.

Someone might argue that all this talk about dos and don’ts is so Old Testament! I agree. And I also fully agree that all of us who are in Christ are being transformed into the image of Christ. When the transformation is complete – when we are fully formed into the new creatures God intends us to become – we will, by nature, always do what we ought. But whether we refrain from sinning because of a rule or because of being given a new nature does not change the character of sin itself. It merely speaks to our motivation for avoiding it.

In fact, the concept of being transformed into the image of Christ contains the seed of my biggest objection to the notion that we can live sinless lives. There is more to sin than acts of commission or omission. Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NIV). Imagine that we are archers and God’s glory is the target. The problem is not that we play mumblety-peg at the archery butts (sin of commission). The problem is not that we don’t set an arrow to the string (sin of omission). The problem is not that we neglect to wear an arm-guard (sin of ignoring implied responsibility). No, the problem is that even with totally pure motives, honest intent and the best will in the world, when we loose a shaft it doesn’t even reach the target, much less hit the bullseye. Our best efforts don’t measure up to fullness of God’s character. Our love is incomparably less than His. Our compassion does not reach the extent of His. Our goodness only pales before His. To change the metaphor, our righteousness is as filthy rags in comparison to God’s perfection (Isaiah 64:6).

Why do we miss the mark – and keep on missing it? I suggest that one reason is ignorance. Like with anything else, there’s a learning curve to Christianity. We don’t know everything when we first come to Christ. And, no matter how long we live for and in Christ, we still don’t know everything. It’s a life-long process (1 Corinthians 8:2).

In the beginning we don’t even recognize many sins for what they are. Our consciences have not yet been trained to discern good from evil (Hebrews 5:14). Christ is continually refining us. Or, to put it another way, we should be growing and maturing in Christ. Unfortunately, until we reach the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13-14), we will continue to stumble (sin) in many ways (James 3:2).

Perhaps a story will illustrate my point. I grew up in a foreign country in a different culture. Not long after returning to the States I had to attend a funeral. Afterward someone severely criticized me for not dressing appropriately. It was not my intent to embarrass anyone. It certainly was not my intent to show disrespect to the grieving family. I honestly did not know I was causing offense. No one told me what was appropriate to wear or what the expectations of this culture are. Since then I have learned what is appropriate and have not been guilty of that particular offense again. But I had to learn – it wasn’t something I knew intuitively.

If we continue to offend (sin) even after we become Christians then why does the Bible refer to us as pure and holy? This is one of the beautiful things about God. John writes that if we confess what we know about, God cleanses us from all of it – both the sins we realize we’ve committed and those we haven’t a clue about (1 John 1:9).

Because of my experience with my own ignorance it concerns me when I hear the dogmatic assertion that we can avoid sin altogether. I see at least two dangers in making the claim. The first is that it can easily lead to spiritual pride. It is evident that, any assertions to the contrary, Christians actually do sin. If they sin while I do not, it is tempting to look down on them. “…God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12 NIV)

A second danger is that it’s easy to deceive oneself. If it is my position that real Christians don’t sin then, rather than admit I have fallen, it’s all too easy to excuse my actions as not really being sinful. John flat-out says that those who claim to be without sin (and he is writing to Christians), deceive themselves and truth isn’t in them – they are liars (1 John 1:8, 10).

There’s another biblical analogy which helps me put this whole concept in perspective. Jesus told His disciples that unless they became like little children they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3). Many Scriptures refer to Christians as “children of God.” No doubt the term describes our relationship both to God and to one another. No doubt Jesus was referring to the unconditional love, trust and acceptance that children extend to their parents. However, I think there is another aspect of childhood worth considering. We accept and tolerate behavior from small children we would never accept or condone in adults. Why? Because little ones do not understand the conventions of adult society. When they are very small they do not even have the capacity to understand what proper behavior is. They have to be taught not to chew with their mouths open, to cover their mouths when they cough and not to burp out loud. They have to learn not to interrupt when others are talking, to sit still and not to shout in the library. They have to be taught how to share and put others first. To put it another way, they have to learn proper etiquette. Even if they understand some of the concepts they may not have the motor skills to fully comply. We put bibs on toddlers for a reason.

Just as adult behavior and proper etiquette is often incomprehensible and beyond the grasp of children we, too, actually know very little about the heavenly realms. We are created beings constrained by the limitations of our minds and bodies. God is outside of nature. We cannot conceive of Him as He really is. As Paul implies, the reality is beyond all we can think or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). As long as we are in this body – part of this nature – we will not fully know or understand the etiquette of heaven. God makes allowances for our weaknesses, our incapacity and our lack of understanding. Though we offend, He does not count our sins against us. However, we look forward to the day we we will fully know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:11-12). As John writes, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2 NIV)

At last, we shall fully learn the etiquette of heaven. Until then, though we do our best to please our heavenly Father, we will continue to fall short of the glory. Thank God, He makes allowances for His children!

Story and Content

I’m a fan of expository speaking. Lest someone misunderstand, I fully agree that there is a time and place for topical sermons. Generally, however, I think the church is far better served by a steady diet of consistent, systematic explanation of the biblical text. There are lots of advantages to the expository approach. For one thing, it helps counteract the tendency of preachers to ride their favorite hobby horses. It forces you to talk about the subjects actually in the text rather than the enthusiasm of the day. Similarly, systematic expository speaking forces you to deal with the difficult and hard subjects you’d rather avoid. For example, it may not be politically correct to talk about adultery and divorce. But, if you’re doing an expository series on the “Sermon on the Mount,” you can’t sweep under the rug what Jesus had to say on the subject – regardless of whether it happens to offend somebody. In short, expository speaking is more likely to provide a congregation with a healthier and balanced diet than other approaches.

However, this brings up a related problem. We might need to provide explanations of the biblical text, but how can we make it interesting? How can we be faithful to the text without a sermon becoming a dry-as-dust commentary? In what sort of package should we convey content?

Let me approach the answers to these questions in a round about way:

The problem of how best to convey content has become even more important to me as I’ve branched out into writing books – particularly novels. Writing is a discipline as well as an art. I’m still learning my craft. In the process I’m trying to assimilate all the writing advice I can. There’s a lot to learn. On the “macro” level there are things like plot, structure, character, voice and world building. While there’s no doubt I need to work on those things, I still struggle with some of the more mechanical aspects of writing. Avoiding the more common pitfalls has not yet become as instinctive as it should.

Writing books and blogs are remarkably consistent in their lists of what to avoid. For example, “show, don’t tell” is a mantra common to all of them. They insist that we should replace adverbs – particularly those ending in “ly” – with strong active verbs. They are death on the use of passive voice – the subject of a sentence should act rather than be acted upon. (See what I did there?!) They say not to use the verb “to be.” Here’s a passage from one writing book:

“Worst of all to be’s forms is the past perfect tense. You can recognize it by the word had – a red flag of danger in your story every time.
“For had describes not just a static state, but a static state in the past: “He had traveled far that day.” “I never had realized how much I loved her.”
“Each had makes your story jerk, because it jars your reader out of the present action and throws him back into history.
“…throw in enough… hads, and your story grinds to an aching, quaking halt. Forward movement stops. Your reader finds himself bogged down in history.
“This is the kiss of death. No one can change what’s already happened. To waste any time on it is, at best, an irritation…” (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques Of The Selling Writer, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, p. 28)

As valuable as the advise on the rules of writing may be, it doesn’t give the whole picture. Recently I re-read an old favorite of mine, The Fellowship Of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. With the “rules” of writing stuck in my head, having just edited a book of my own, I found the following passage amusing:

“The hobbits had been nearly two months in the House of Elrond, and November had gone by with the last shreds of autumn, and December was passing, when the scouts began to return. Some had gone north beyond the springs of the Hoarwell into the Ettenmoors; and others had gone west, and with the help of Aragorn and the Rangers had searched the lands far down the Greyflood, as far as Tharbad, where the old North Road crossed the river by a ruined town. Many had gone east and south; and some of these had crossed the Mountains and entered Mirkwood, while others had climbed the pass at the source of the Gladden River, and had come down into Wilderland and over the Gladden Fields and so at length had reached the old home of Radagast at Rhosgobel. Radagast was not there; and they had returned over the high pass that was called the Dimrill Stair. The sons of Elrond, Elladan and Elrohir, were the last to return; they had made a great journey, passing down the Silverlode into a strange country, but of their errand they would not speak to any save to Elrond.”

In that one paragraph I count twelve instances of the past perfect tense and one instance of the passive voice!

A couple of pages later we find this:

“The Sword of Elendil was forged anew by Elvish smiths, and on its blade was traced a device of seven stars set between the crescent Moon and the rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor. Very bright was that sword when it was made whole again; the light of the sun shone redly in it, and the light of the moon shone cold, and its edge was hard and keen. And Aragorn gave it a new name and called it Andúril, Flame of the West.”

By my count, that one paragraph contains four examples of the passive voice!

Tolkien also seems overly fond of adverbs and “filler words.” (See what I did there?!) Here are just a few examples to illustrate the point: “At that moment Elrond came out with Gandalf…” “Suddenly Aragorn leapt to his feet.” “Suddenly Gimli, who had pressed on ahead…” “Sam stood sullenly by the pony…” “Then slowly on the surface, where the wizard’s hands had passed…” “At that moment from far off the wind bore to their listening ears the howling of wolves.” “Pippin felt curiously attracted by the well.” “…the road sloped down swiftly…” “They stumbled wildly up the great stairs…”

Such phrases litter Tolkien’s writing.

According to the pundits all of these are examples of poor or careless writing. Yet, there is no question that The Lord Of The Rings epic is one of the most seminal, influential and important pieces of literature of the 20th century. It is a classic which endures. The books have inspired and given hope to tens of thousands. They have impacted whole generations. Millions of people count the books among their favorites.

How can a work be so beloved when the writing is so “bad”? One possibility is that the experts are wrong. Perhaps the generous use of adverbs and the passive voice are not always indications of poor writing after all. It’s fairer to say that the experts are right, but that it is a mistake to take a generality and turn it into a rigid rule. A master of his craft like Tolkien can deliberately “break” the rules to create the effect and mood he wants to evoke.

However, the more complete answer is that story trumps presentation. Tolkien’s world is so rich, deep, layered and consistent, his story is so sweeping and compelling that we are more than willing to overlook his relatively minor sins of presentation. The story carries us along. It moves us. We care about the characters. We feel with them. We see the reflections of their victories and defeats in our own souls. Their heroism, valor and integrity moves us to become more heroic, more valorous and true. Similarly, we can relate to their indecision and sorrow. Who can remain untouched by the Lady Galadriel’s choice who, when offered the Great Ring, remains true to herself even though it means she must diminish and lose all that she loves and has fought for in Middle Earth?

The concept of story, I think, provides the key to making our expository teaching and speaking effective and powerful. We need to find ways of being true to the text while, at the same time, making the content relevant and useful to the hearer. We can use the elements of story to bridge the gap.

Here’s an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about: The first chapter of the book of Ruth portrays one of the main characters, Naomi, as a bitter woman with a grievance against God. She is so out of sorts that she even tells the women of Bethlehem to call her Mara, which means bitter. One of the questions we need to ask when reading the text is why Naomi is bitter. What is it that brought on the state she is in? After studying the passage we can legitimately conclude that if we reject God’s discipline (God promised there wouldn’t be any famine if the Israelites obeyed the Law) it will lead us to rationalize and justify further wrongdoing (moving to Moab and marrying her sons to Moabite girls, which God said not to do). This, in turn, leads us to deny any responsibility for the consequences of what we’ve done. Denial of our own responsibility causes us to blame someone else – namely, God. We can’t trust God when we’re blaming Him. Therefore, we become bitter towards Him.

This is fine, as far as it goes. The teaching is plain and concise. But even though I used the word “we” it’s still abstract, head knowledge. It doesn’t grab our emotions. We can present the same information more effectively by looking at the situation through Naomi’s eyes.

Imagine her saying this: “There’s a famine in Bethlehem, if we want to eat we’ll have to go somewhere else. They’ve got plenty of food in Moab. Let’s go there. Well, we’re in Moab not Israel, who else is there to marry but a Moabitess? I’m sorry that she’s a pagan, but would you please show me someone around here who isn’t? Hey, I’m not to blame for what happened, God’s the one who forced us to move here. Some God He is! He makes us come down here and then kills my family and leaves me saddled with a couple of pagan daughters-in-law.”

Looking at the situation from Naomi’s perspective helps us to empathize with her and internalize the lesson. We start to feel her emotions instead of just looking at her actions.

Here’s another example of the kind of thing which can be done with story elements in expository presentations. This is an excerpt from a sermon I delivered on John, chapter 21. Notice how I express the implications of what Jesus and Peter said by couching it in the form of further conversation. I think it is more effective than merely explaining the meaning of what they said.

“After breakfast Jesus took the initiative and asked Peter a question. It’s probably significant that Jesus didn’t address Peter by the name that He, Himself, had given him. He called him Simon instead of Peter. There was still some unfinished business between the two. Peter had denied Jesus. He had acted according to his old nature rather than as the rock Jesus had called him. They were seated around a charcoal fire. This was probably something which Jesus had arranged deliberately. No doubt, it brought to Peter’s mind the other charcoal fire which had led to his downfall. It was time for Peter to make another choice and get his priorities straight.
“Jesus asked, “…do you truly love me more than these?” (John 21:15 NIV) It’s not clear exactly what Jesus meant. Did He mean, “Do you really love me more than the other disciples do?” In the upper room, shortly before the crucifixion, Peter made the boast, “…Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Matthew 26:33 NIV) In spite of the boast, he fell. Now Jesus was asking whether he still thought he was better than the other disciples.
“There’s another possibility, too. By referring to “these” Jesus might have meant the boat and the net. In other words, “Am I more important to you than your business and occupation?”
“The word Jesus used for love is “agape”. It is the kind of love which God has. It is not a feeling. It is the decision or act of the will to do whatever is best for the object of your love. It is the kind of sacrificial love which gives for the benefit of the other.
“It’s interesting that in his reply, Peter didn’t use “agape”. Instead, he used the word “phileo” which means affection. “Yes Lord, you’re aware that I’m fond of you.”
“Jesus didn’t debate Peter. Instead He issued him a directive: “Feed my lambs.” Our love for the Lord is not demonstrated by our words, but by doing the work He has given us to do. “Peter, you’ve been throwing your weight around and talking like a big-shot. But I need somebody who will be gentle and show kindness to those who are weak and vulnerable. Part of loving me is nurturing the people I entrust to you.”
“It must have been a relief to Peter that Jesus still accepted him and trusted him to do an important task. But it must have been disconcerting when, a little while later, Jesus repeated the question. Jesus again used the word “agape” and Peter again replied with “phileo.” This time, Jesus told him to “Take care of my sheep.” (John 21:16 NIV) “Peter, you’ve gone back to fishing, but I’ve called you to something else. You’re supposed to be a shepherd. Is your affection for me strong enough to make you switch careers?”
“Peter had denied Jesus three times. Jesus asked Peter three times whether he loved Him. The first two times, Jesus used the word “agape.” The third time, Jesus used “phileo.” “Peter, do you even have the affection for me you say you do?”
“This time, Peter was hurt. In his reply he said, “You know that I do!” Jesus, again, told Peter to feed His sheep. And, Jesus took it further. He told Peter how he was going to die. “Peter, in the upper room you said that you were willing to die for me. You’ve just said, three times, that you care for me. Is your love strong enough to see it through?”
“Peter learned his lesson well. From the way John phrases it, it is clear that Peter had already been executed for his faith at the time John wrote. And, John says that Peter glorified God in his death. Jesus’ trust in Peter was not misplaced.”

Granted, it’s a lot easier to do this sort of thing with narrative passages than it is with doctrinal arguments like the first few chapters of Romans or Hebrews. But it’s not impossible. Theological exposition doesn’t have to be dull. At the very least, we can incorporate story in the illustrations we use to make our points. Jesus did it all the time when He told the parables.

I’m of the opinion that the more we learn to use the elements of story, the more effective we will become in presenting content. It is story which touches our emotions and causes us to care about the information our minds perceive.

Historical Nobodies

It’s not often I have the urge to answer the idiocy I encounter on the Internet. There seems little point. Such “discussions” generally produce more heat than light. I’ve got better things to do than contribute to some flame war. I can understand if you feel differently about this than I do. After all, if nobody calls people on the idiotic things they say about the church and the Bible, then it is only those idiotic things which will remain in the public view. “Answer a fool according to his folly,” Solomon said, “or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Proverbs 26:5 NIV)

That’s all well and good, but the verse just prior to that says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” (Proverbs 26:4 NIV) The way I see it, it’s a no-win situation. It’s not likely you’ll change any minds by engaging. At best you end up agreeing to disagree. I figure the most beneficial thing we can do is present the truth on our own platforms. Then, we hold the high ground if somebody wants to disagree. They’re on our turf. Our rules apply. If necessary, we can cut trolls off at the knees.

Having said all that, not too long ago I was sorely tempted to break my own rule and respond to some idiotic statements somebody made on his blog about the Bible, the writers thereof and Jesus Christ. What made the situation particularly galling is that the theme of the blog, and even of the post in question, is far removed from religion, let alone Christianity. In regard to the stated theme of the blog, the author is someone whose opinion I respect.

Though the situation still bugs me, I finally decided to retain my status as a lurker. What tipped the scale in favor of remaining silent was the man’s smug, condescending, arrogant attitude of superiority on the subject. He claims to be a skeptic – that he’s open to evidence and that he always challenges his own assumptions. Yet, it was obvious from his replies to a believer who, oh so gently and politely, demurred from what he said in the blog post that this man made up his mind long ago about the Bible and Christ. Far from being open he either dismisses evidence or twists it to suit his own preconceived notions.

It reminded me of an exchange I read some years ago between a believer and someone who called himself an atheist. The atheist claimed that he could see no evidence for the existence of God. The believer asked the atheist what sort of evidence it would take to convince him of God’s existence. The atheist immediately moved the goal-posts by asking the believer to define what he meant by “God.” It rapidly became obvious to me (and, I think to everyone else who read that exchange) that no amount of evidence of any kind would be sufficient to convince the atheist that he was wrong. He had already made up his mind that God could not exist, ergo, by definition, any evidence to the contrary is misleading or misinterpreted. Therefore, no matter what evidence you produce, or what arguments you use, it will never be enough to convince him. To put it another way, he is intellectually dishonest and self-deceived. I got the same impression this time around. The blogger claims to be a skeptic. In reality, when it comes to God and Christianity, it looks very much like his mind is closed to facts and logic.

The man wrote that he gave up belief as a teenager because his parish priest couldn’t answer his questions about the Bible. Really? That’s a pretty lame excuse. Since when is someone else responsible for our faith or lack thereof? I’m sorry the priest couldn’t answer his questions. But it sounds like the priest is a convenient scapegoat. I doubt the priest could have said anything to change the determination this man had already made.

Let’s suppose the priest genuinely couldn’t answer reasonable and sincere questions about the Bible. Is the priest the only authority in the world? Obviously not. There are plenty of sources which can answer questions about the authenticity of the Bible. There happens to be far more evidence for the authenticity and accuracy of the Bible than any other piece of ancient literature. It always amazes me that people claim to have doubts about the integrity of the biblical texts, yet accept that we have accurate copies of other works with far less manuscript evidence. Are people who question the biblical text merely ignorant, or are they hypocrites?

I have more sympathy for those who question the message of the Scriptures than I do for those who question the texts. I will freely grant that a superficial reading of the Bible – particularly the Old Testament – can raise questions about the character of God. The blogger emphatically stated that God, as portrayed in Scripture, is abusive because we are told to fear Him. How shallow! He does not inquire how the Bible defines “fear” (look up Proverbs 8:13). He does not look at context to see why we should fear God. He does not attempt to harmonize the various passages which speak of fear. He gives no consideration to passages which tell us to both fear and not fear. (Such as 1 Peter 3:1-6. The word in verse 2 which the NIV renders “reverence” is the Greek “phobos” from which we get phobia.) He makes no allowance for the biblical teaching about how love transforms fear (see 1 John 4:18). No! This man has apparently decided that fear is evil and, therefore, God must be abusive because the Bible instructs us to fear Him.

How can this man not realize that fear, as God made it and intends us to use it, is actually something extremely positive? It is fear which keeps us out of all sorts of dangerous situations. It is the person who does not have a “healthy respect” (which is what the biblical term “fear” often means) for power tools, firearms or automobiles who is at most risk of being harmed by them. How is God being abusive when it is a “healthy respect”, “awe” or “reverence” for Him which helps us avoid evil? Is the blogger a bad father if he tells his children that there will be consequences if they do not obey the guidelines he has established for his household? Is he an abusive father if he instills a fear in them which will keep them from “crossing the line” into harmful behavior? Would he prefer that his toddler run into the road and be struck by a car rather than fear his displeasure for ignoring instruction? Does he love his children any less because he has instilled a fear of the consequences of wrong behavior in them? I would argue that if he hasn’t instilled such fear in his young children it is evidence that he doesn’t love them as he should. Yes, I agree that as a child grows and matures, the motive of the fear of consequences should be replaced by the motive of love. The child should do what pleases his father out of respect and love for his parent. He should not want to do anything which would harm his relationship with his parent. But until that time comes, fear is a very healthy emotion. It saves both the child and his parents much grief and heartache. How can this man not see that what is true in human parent-child relationships also holds true in our relationship with God? The logical disconnect is mind-boggling!

The blogger also bashes the God of the Bible because of the terrible things which happen in this world. He blames God for natural disasters, diseases and birth defects. He claims that a loving God would never have sent Noah’s flood. In reality, all this bleating merely shows a profound ignorance of the Bible’s message. (I’m being generous here. If it isn’t ignorance it’s something much worse – a deliberate distortion or rejection of the facts.) The truth is that it is the Bible which makes sense of the problems of pain, suffering and evil. If the Bible’s explanation is wrong, then either there is no God and therefore there is no meaning or hope to life at all (hence no reason to be disturbed by any natural disaster or anyone’s pain and suffering), or God is the “Cosmic Sadist” C.S. Lewis postulates in his book A Grief Observed.

The Bible’s explanation is really quite simple. And it is elegant in that it accounts for all that we see and experience. The world we know is not how God created it nor how He intended it to be. He created it good and perfect. But, if God is going to allow us free will, it follows that He must also grant us the possibility of doing wrong. If people choose to do evil, then evil will be in the world. It is inevitable. It could not be otherwise. The presence of evil in our world is not a reflection upon God but the inevitable result of personal choices we made to do evil. God cannot grant choice and at the same time prevent evil from occurring.

The blogger’s complaint ignores this basic principle of action and consequence. Each action has a result. Not only is the presence of evil in the world a result of our choice, the Bible teaches that there was another consequence of that choice. The act of doing wrong altered the very nature of this world. Disease and disaster were not meant to be. But they are the consequence of what we did. Who is to blame? God for giving us the choice, or us for wrecking the perfect world He gave us? If I choose to walk off the roof, is God to blame that I smash my bones on the pavement below? Is the builder of a house to blame if I choose to set fire to it?

Even if that were the only message of the Bible, we would not be justified in blaming God for the mess we find ourselves in. We could only pine for paradise lost. But that is not the end of the story. Though God would be perfectly within His rights if He left us to stew in the consequences of our own decisions, He gives us a way out. Just as He created us and our world perfect, through Jesus Christ He is in the process of re-creating both us and nature. One day those of us who love Him and respond to His offer of redemption will inherit a new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).

What I find particularly irritating about the blogger’s line of un-reasoning is that he, himself, is an author and, therefore, a creator. As such he should have an understanding of the principle of action and consequence. He should have an intuitive understanding of God the Creator, for he himself creates characters and the environments in which they live. As an author I doubt that he gives his characters as much choice and freedom of action as God gives us. Yet, if his stories are to make any sense at all, the characters he invents must experience the consequences of the actions they perform. If nothing happens as a result of what they do – if there is no connection between actions and results – the plot will be illogical, random and meaningless. Yet this man rails against God because we experience the consequences of what we do.

Not only that, there is another aspect of the creator/creature relationship he seems to ignore. He undoubtedly puts his characters in all sorts of uncomfortable situations. There would be no tension, suspense or conflict in his stories if he did not. They would be flat, insipid and boring. As the creator of these tales does he not have the right to put his characters into stressful or uncomfortable situations? Does he not have the right to determine the plot? Does he not have the right to say that if character X does Y, then Z will result, whereas if character X does not choose to do Y then A will occur? Is he a “terrible” author because he puts his people into difficulties? Is he a bad man because he decrees what is “right” for his characters to do and determines the consequences if they deviate from the morals or customs which he has designed for the society in which he places them? Why then, does he accuse God – the author of life – of being abusive and unjust when He determines the standards to which we, His creatures, should comply and the consequences which will result if we choose to deviate from those standards? It seems to me that this man allows himself the very privileges he denies God. I find the blogger’s attitude toward God more than a little hypocritical.

He also blames God for atheists. Why, he asks, if God is all knowing and all loving would He create someone to be an atheist? Note the illogical assumption. His question is predicated on people not having free will. According to him, we are born the way we are; we have no choice in whether we believe or not. Surely, the blogger’s every-day experience conclusively demonstrates that he does have the ability to choose. Since he has that capacity and exercises it every day, then how can he, with a straight face, blame God for the choices he freely makes? Even if God did create us so that we did not have free will, as Creator, that is His prerogative. Paul writes, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:20-24 NIV) I wonder how much guff the blogger takes from the characters he creates?

Not only does this man rail against the character of God, he disputes that God exists at all. He claims that people don’t need any divine being to tell them that everyone should get along together in love. The most charitable thing I can say about this sentiment is that it betrays a total lack of thought and understanding. The truth is that without the supernatural – specifically without God – there is no basis for love or any moral concepts at all. Throw God out and there is no reason to love. In fact, love cannot exist. Similarly, there is no reason for any moral constraints. “Might makes right” is the only principle left to you. In contrast, the instant you use the words “should” or “ought” you bear witness to the reality of something other than the material universe. This man wishes to have the benefits of Judeo-Christian morality – which is based solidly on the character of God – without the responsibility submitting to God who is the source of morality.

He claims that he would accept a being as God if that being performed miracles or created life before his eyes. So, what he is really saying is that God must fit into his mold before he will believe in Him. God must conform to his notions and do his bidding. Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but such a god would not be worth believing in. Who are we to dictate to God what He must do? He is not a performing seal. If He is God, then we must come to Him on His terms, or not at all. And you would believe if you saw a miracle would you? Right. Tell me another. There were plenty of people who saw God “in the flesh” perform many miracles and still refused to believe (John 12:37). If the eyewitness accounts are not enough to convince you, then nothing will. “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.”” (Matthew 12:38-42 NIV)

The man claims he’d kneel before a being who would prove himself. Well, I’ve got news for you. The day will come when all creatures – whether in heaven or on earth or below the earth – will bow before Jesus and confess that He is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). But when that happens it’ll be too late to change your mind. He’s already proved Himself and you wouldn’t accept the proof. You chose to reject it. That day you won’t have the choice. Since you refused to freely bow before Christ when you had the chance, you’ll be forced to bow whether you want to or not.

In spite of saying he would believe if he saw a miracle, this man also says that no church can persuade him because their answers always come down to faith. He then goes on to define faith as “belief without proof”. Even if we accept his definition (which is, at best, problematical and incomplete) it conveniently ignores the fact that everybody functions on the basis of faith. We might not believe a particular religious assertion or dogma but there are plenty of other things we take for granted without having proof. We simply couldn’t live our lives if we had to have proof for everything. Nobody takes the time to verify everything he’s told before he accepts it. How tedious life would be if we attempted to do so! No, this is simply a convenient excuse. I find it rather telling that in other posts this same blogger emphatically says that he has faith (his word) in certain processes or methods. So, either he is changing his definition, or he is undercutting his own argument. But then, when it comes to religion, this man isn’t very consistent.

Only God knows the heart, but the overwhelming impression I got was that, in spite of his assertion to the contrary, this particular “skeptic” has no interest in finding out whether God exists and, if so, no desire to serve Him. If the doubts and questions had been genuine and sincere it would have been a privilege and honor to show the man the truth. However, as I read his comments I couldn’t help but think that his problem is not one of intellect, but one of morals. If the God of the Bible truly does exist, he’d have to change the way he lives – and he wants to leave self on the throne. I found myself veering between feelings of pity and a weary disgust. Disgust because all of this stuff is the same, old, boring, insipid blather that’s been debunked a thousand times before. Unbelievers trot out these pathetic arguments as if they’re saying something original and brilliant while, in reality, they only demonstrate their own lack of wit and integrity. My sense of pity was aroused because I can’t help thinking how threadbare all of these excuses will sound when this man has to bow before the One he goes out of his way to deny and belittle. I also pity him because of the depth of life he’s deliberately turned his back on. He has this world’s goods, but how much richer his soul would be if he only was willing to submit himself to Christ!

What prompted my rant, however, is this man did say something which I don’t remember having heard before. It’s breathtaking for sheer audacity, condescension, presumption and arrogance. It is so “out there” and “over the top” that, at first, I couldn’t think how to answer as I was so busy metaphorically picking my “jaw off the floor”. He dismisses the writers of the Bible (and therefore what they wrote), specifically Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as “historical nobodies”. He even goes so far as to call Jesus Christ Himself an “historical nobody”. According to him they are “nobodies” because there are few or no mentions of them in contemporary writings. Since there are few or no mentions of these people, therefore – according to this blogger, it is doubtful whether they even existed. There isn’t really any evidence that they did.

The illogic is mind-blowing. First, notice the relatively minor point that someone is only worth listening to if he happens to be famous – or at least has a good publicity department. If you aren’t listed in the proper stud-book or contemporary who’s who, you have nothing to say. (The blogger skipped over the “minor” inconvenience to his assertion that in Jesus’ case we have full genealogies. We know exactly what His lineage is.) It occurs to me that if we are going to accept this argument, in order to be consistent, we’d have to dismiss or doubt the existence of a lot of other people, too. How would folks like Plato and Confucius fare under this requirement? Were they all that well-known in their own lifetimes? Is it not true that their teaching had its greatest influence after their deaths? If that is not a cause to doubt their existence, then why is it grounds to doubt whether Jesus lived?

To bolster his statement that Jesus is an “historical nobody” the blogger asks where, “in his own words” is Jesus’ gospel? Well, if you are going to doubt Jesus’ existence because He delegated writing down His teaching to the disciples, are you also going to doubt the existence of people like Alexander the Great? The only way we have to know what Alexander said and did, and the laws he passed are from the accounts of others. Does that make Alexander less of a historical person?

However, the thing which really boggled my mind is how can this guy dismiss Jesus as an “historical nobody” when Jesus and His teachings has, arguably, had a more profound effect on history than any other person? Frankly, in spite of this blogger’s notoriety on the Internet, he will never even remotely have the kind of impact on our world that Jesus continues to have. Yet Jesus, in his mind, is a “nobody”!

I really shouldn’t be surprised. The attitude merely demonstrates how different the mindset of the world is compared to those in the Kingdom of Heaven. It shows just how ignorant and uncomprehending this man is of the very teachings and writings he disdains and dismisses. The Apostle Paul described it long ago: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:20-29 NIV)

So, if someone want to dismiss Jesus and the Apostles as “historical nobodies” go right ahead. It is those very “nobodies” God chooses and uses to fulfill His purposes. As for me, I would much rather be counted among the “nobodies” than to have all the honor and fame this world could give. I’d rather endure the mocking of people like the blogger in this life than try to explain, when I have to face to my Creator why I refused to believe in Him. I’ll take Christ crucified over the “wisdom” of the world, any day.

Truth and Love – Another Novel For You To Enjoy

It is probably no exaggeration to say that most Christians believe that the original texts of the Bible (the autographs) were inspired by God and contained no errors. The textual variations which currently exist result from the process of transmission and they do not change the meaning, and certainly not any major doctrine, in any substantiative way. This belief is certainly held by most evangelicals.

Unfortunately, the fact that we do not possess the originals is often used as an argument against the accuracy of the text. In some cases the assertion may simply reveal the ignorance of the critics. They don’t seem to realize that there are far more ancient copies of the biblical texts than any other ancient literature. Even if we had no copies of the actual text itself, we could reconstruct all but about two verses of the New Testament from quotations of it in ancient commentaries and other sources. In other cases, critics apply a double standard. They accept the accuracy of other texts of which we have far fewer copies while questioning the far greater evidence for the New Testament.

I enjoy speculating about how things would change if we ever do find some of the original texts. Almost all scholars seem to think that the originals have long since perished. But have they? I can’t help but think that the first Christians would have understood the importance of the writings of the Apostles and taken pains to preserve them. It won’t surprise me if someday we stumble across a document cache that has been lost to history. What a sensation that would be! Not only would it settle, once for all, the problem of textual variations, it would also settle a lot of questions about when the New Testament books were first written. It might even shake up our understanding of the canon (that is, which books the early Christians regarded as inspired). My guess is that an awful lot of scholarship – particularly the so-called “higher criticism” would have to be jettisoned.

Finding the originals of the New Testament was one of the “what if”questions which gave me the idea for an adventure novel. How would people respond to the discovery? What difference would the discovery make? What would the impact be on faith? Throw in some physical danger and a love interest, and I think I have the basis for a fairly decent yarn.

I had so much fun during National Novel Writing Month last November that I decided to do it again during “Camp Nano” in April. For whatever reason getting started was more difficult this time around. Still, I eventually hit my stride and was able to finish a 60,000 word manuscript before the end of the month.

I set the book aside for a while before tackling the inevitable edits and revisions with a fresh eye. Now the work is done and “Truth and Love” is available for purchase in both paper and ebook formats.

The blurb on the back cover of the paperback reads, “Professor of Linguistics, Stacy Foster still grieves for her late husband. Preacher Keith Campbell suffers from ministry burnout. While on a tourist jaunt to Turkey, a natural disaster forces them to trust and depend on each other for survival. In the process they stumble upon an archaeological discovery which, if brought to light, will forever change biblical scholarship. However, powerful forces are arrayed against them. Many would like to suppress the truth. Will Stacy and Keith give in and compromise their integrity to preserve the status quo? Or, will they put their reputations, their careers and their relationship at risk to stand up for the truth?”

Beyond Imagination

My wife sits at the dining room table typing on her laptop computer. Her cat lies sprawled across her legs. Every so often my wife reaches down and strokes his fur or gives the root of his ears a scratch. It’s a scene of domestic bliss and contentment. Two beings at peace with one another and enjoying each other’s fellowship.

But as I watch them, another thought occurs to me. What does the cat make of what my wife is doing? The short answer is, nothing. Yes, he sees the screen of her computer. On occasion he seems mesmerized by the movement of my wife’s fingers as she types. Yet there is no comprehension. The cat simply is not equipped to understand what he sees much less grasp its significance. He has no inkling of written communication let alone the abstractions embodied in the computer – ethereal bits and bytes representing concepts and ideas – marks on a screen conveying thoughts.

Leaving technology and the abstract to one side, I wonder sometimes what the cat makes of more ordinary things. Is he puzzled by our clothes? Why and how does his mistress appear this way one day and that way the next? Is he astonished when he sees her remove or put on a sweater? After all, he can’t change his color by swapping his coat. Or, is he even capable of such thoughts?

Does the cat ever wonder about his food? He sees my wife scoop it out of a bag or spoon it out of a can. Does he ever ask where the food comes from or how it gets into the bag or can? Is he even able to form the questions?

From the cat’s perspective so much of what we do must seem random, purposeless, chaotic, beyond comprehension. So much must seem inexplicable or miraculous.

In some ways the gap between God and us is even greater than that between us and the cat. True, we are made in God’s image and the cat is not. Still, we share the same time-space continuum with the cat while God is beyond and outside material nature altogether.

Since God made us in His image we share some of His attributes. Among those attributes, we are moral beings in that we recognize the concept of right and wrong. We think in terms of should and ought. We are capable of abstract thought. And, perhaps one of the most marvelous attributes of God we share (at least when it is directed and tempered by God’s love) is the ability to image and create. “God spoke… and it was so.” Like God, we have the ability to conceptualize and visualize things which do not exist. Unlike Him we are unable to create material objects out of nothing, but we can imagine them. We can conceive of things and even beings which do not exist. We tell stories about them. Though, unlike God, we cannot give life to our creations, they live in our imaginations.

My own imagination is not nearly as highly developed as some. I read a lot of fiction and am often amazed at some of the concepts, plots and creatures I encounter in the pages of books (whether paper books or electronic).

The range of human thought and speculation is truly enormous. Yet, in spite of our capacity to imagine, we still cannot really comprehend God. Try as we might, we cannot envision Him as He really is. Part of the problem is that our material nature does not have the capacity to do so. As God told Moses, “…you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20 NIV) At best we can see a representation or an image of Him because, to enter His true presence would destroy the very fabric of our material bodies. “God is spirit…” (John 4:24) The matter and nature of this creation is incompatible with His spiritual nature. The incompatibility is so great Scripture says that when Christ became a man He had to empty Himself and become nothing (Philippians 2:6-7). Our reality is as insubstantial as a shadow or a faint mist compared to God’s presence.

Not only can we not see God as He really is – because it would destroy us as long as we are locked into this creation, we also have another limitation. The Apostle Paul hints at it in an intriguing comment he makes. He writes, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory…” (Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV) No matter how great our imaginations are – and there are a lot of people who can imagine some pretty far-out stuff – they can’t even begin to compare with God and what He can do. We’re like the cat who is unable to comprehend what my wife does or why she does it.

All this points to one of the great hopes that Christians have: We can’t see much now; we can’t comprehend as we’d like; we don’t have the capacity to even imagine God as He is, but one day those limitations will be taken away. Paul writes, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NIV)

John agrees. He writes, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2 NIV)

Peter and John both write about the new heavens and the new earth which God’s people can look forward to. This nature will be destroyed. It’ll be gone and something new will take its place. The “laws of physics” as we know them will no longer operate. It’ll be something totally different because God will dwell with His people and we will be able to see Him as He really is. What will it be like? I don’t know, brother, because it’s beyond what we can imagine!


My wife and I left the program with decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, the young people from our congregation we had gone to support did a bang-up job. The acting and singing was superb. On that level we thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

On the other hand we were, to put it mildly, bemused by the mixed message we’d gotten. I, in particular, was having a hard time processing what we’d seen and heard because of my background. The musical would have been totally inappropriate in the culture and country in which I grew up. In fact, the believers I know in that land would have been highly offended. They would have considered the musical blasphemous.

The incident got me thinking about the whole concept of blasphemy. I tend to be a bit hyper-sensitive about blasphemy because the country where I grew up now has a blasphemy law. If you happen to say anything deemed disrespectful or derogatory about the prophet of the majority religion or its holy books, you can easily find yourself facing a long time in prison, if not worse. When you’ve got that kind of thing hanging over your head, you tend to watch what you say and who you say it to. Innocent expressions, to which Americans wouldn’t give a second thought, can have deadly consequences.

With that in mind, I didn’t quite know what to make of what we’d seen and heard. For starters, the musical seemed to compare the words of Jesus to those of philosophers throughout history. But in what sense? I wasn’t sure. At first it appeared to me that the musical was saying that Jesus was simply another one of many philosophers and was on a par with them. However, the more I thought about it, perhaps it was trying to convey the message that Jesus’ words and thoughts were superior to all others. After all, the cast acted out many of Jesus’ parables and quoted verbatim almost the entire sermon on the mount. Can something which proclaims Jesus’ teaching to that extent be blasphemous?

I’ll also admit that the name of the production made me acutely uncomfortable. It was “Godspell” an obvious pun on “Gospel”. What grated on me was the implication that the “good news” of Christ was equivalent to magic. But wait! The word “spell” is merely the Middle English word for “talk” or “speech”. It was later that spell came to mean “words of power” and was associated with magic. Is it possible that the author of the musical was simply looking for a clever way to say, “This is God’s word”? Was he trying to say, “These are God’s powerful words”? Perhaps it was the author’s way of restating Hebrews 1:3? With the connotations the word “spell” has these days, the pun in the title may be in poor taste, but I can’t really say that it’s blasphemous.

What is blasphemy, anyway? We usually think of blasphemy as speech which is directed against God. To be sure, the Bible does define it this way. It is speech which mocks, insults or reviles. It’s helpful to me to think of blasphemy as the opposite of confession. The core idea of confession is saying the same thing as God. For example, when we confess our sins, it is not just acknowledging that we did something contrary to God’s expectations, or that we didn’t live up to His expectations. Confessing sin really means that we say the same thing about our sin as God does. Similarly, when we confess Christ, we say the same thing about Him as God does. In contrast, blasphemy is a deliberate misstatement or misrepresentation of God’s character or words.

However, blasphemous words may only be a symptom of the real problem. While the Bible does associate words with blasphemy, it also gives another definition. Numbers 15:30 defines blasphemy as sinning defiantly. In Ezekiel 20:27 God defines blasphemy as forsaking Him or being unfaithful to Him. Romans 2:23-24 associates blasphemy with breaking the Law.

With that in mind, I have to ask who is most guilty of blasphemy – the person who uses God’s name in casual cuss words, or those of us who call ourselves by Christ’s name yet still have a worldly lifestyle? Is it a musical that portrays the sermon on the mount which is blasphemous or we who refuse to do what the sermon tells us we ought? Something to think about.

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