Tag Archives: religious right

The Futility of Behavior Modification

Jonathan Merritt recently interviewed Tullian Tchividjian, pastor and author of the new book, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (David C. Cook, 2013).

Tullian is the grandson of Billy Graham. And he seems to have Graham’s gift of stating things very plainly. Listen to what he says.

Tullian claims that grace has been “tragically hijacked by an oppressive religious moralism” that leads to condemning others in and outside the church. For these terrorists, it’s about rules, rules, and more rules!

Sadly, too many churches have helped to perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with legislating morality. Believe it or not, Christianity is not about good people getting better. If anything, it is good news for bad people coping with their failure to be good. Too many people have walked away from the church not because they’re walking away from Jesus, but because the church has walked away from Jesus.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for many evangelicals. And I’m glad to hear it coming from a reformed pastor. It needs to be said because it’s true.

I’ve seen it firsthand. I’m sure many of you have as well.

OK, maybe you don’t believe in legislating sin and supporting the Religious Right, but you may need to hear what Tullian says next.  Have you traded your identity in Christ for performance based spirituality?

Ironically, I’ve discovered that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get—I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our performance over Christ’s performance for us actually hinders spiritual growth because it makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective—the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about yourself.

What is the remedy for this neurosis of the soul? It is nothing more than discovering our true identity in the Christ of grace, and replacing our narcissistic self-absorption with an undying concern for others.

Read the full interview: Billy Graham’s grandson takes Christians to task: An interview with Tullian Tchividjian

What do you think about Tullian’s words of challenge and rebuke? How have you been discovering your true identity in Christ?

D.D. Flowers, 2013.


What Would Jesus Not Do?

In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the Judean wilderness to be tempted by the devil following his baptism by John, his own cousin.

But before Jesus can begin his ministry of revealing the Kingdom of God, Jesus must first undergo a series of temptations that will forever define him. He must decide in his own heart, and for the testimony of his followers, what kind of Messiah he will be.

What kind of king and kingdom will Jesus choose? His way then becomes our way. The temptations of Jesus are a matter of our own discipleship.

“Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”  1 John 2:6 (NIV)

In order to understand the temptations, we must see them in conjunction with the previous event. They should not be isolated from Christ’s recent baptism. John the Baptizer recognizes Jesus as the coming king of the promise, the Messiah for Israel. And that’s what he will be.

So, what kind of Messiah will Jesus be for his people?

The temptations of Christ are not just examples of Jesus overcoming sin. They were never meant to be read as examples of Christ experiencing random temptations. The gospel writer sees them as the defining moment for the person and work of Jesus.

“Only as we see what Jesus rejected, can we know what he has affirmed.”  Donald Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, 34.

The nature of these three temptations is critically important for seeing what Jesus will not do in his ministry.

Bread from Stone—Kingdom Economics

After fasting forty days and forty nights (a reenactment of Israel’s wilderness wandering), Jesus was tired and hungry. This clearly would have made any proposal appealing to the flesh. Our physical state often affects our spiritual condition.

And this was the point of the fasting. Jesus makes himself completely vulnerable to opposition. It would have certainly been a time of closeness with the Father and a time of great challenge in his humanity against Satan. Jesus must now face his greatest challenges as Messiah.

The devil came to him and said, “If (since) you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus replies, “It is written, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt.4:3-4).

Was Jesus simply tempted to eat because he was hungry? What does this have to do with the baptism event and Jesus’ coming Kingdom ministry?

Jesus embodies Israel and reveals the nature of his divine mission. The connection to Israel’s history and Christ’s words of total submission to God is obvious. So, what does this have to do with his kingship and Kingdom?

There were two classes of people in the Roman Empire: upper and lower class. Evidence suggests that 90% of the citizens were of the lower class. Most folks were unbelievably poor.

Since Jesus is the Messiah, the devil tempts Jesus to be a welfare king. “Turn these stones to bread” he said. How will Christ deal with the economic problems of the world? This is the question Christ answers. It is a question every king must consider.

Will he open the grain houses upon his arrival? Like Julius Caesar returning from Gaul seeking to manipulate and pander to the masses, will Jesus use his power to win people through their stomachs? What will be his method of proving his divine rule?

Jesus relates to the hunger of people all over the world. He embraces the hunger of others. Jesus’ response ought to be seen as a rejection of solving the problem as an earthly king would.

He doesn’t ignore the physical needs of the world. Jesus will go on to feed many who are hungry. However, the Kingdom of God is much bigger than a loaf of bread—it is more than food. And Jesus doesn’t need bread because he is the bread of life.

Jesus deals with poverty in a different manner. He will feed folks, but he seeks to do more than feed mouths. He will seek to restore the dignity of others and reconcile them to God.

Base Jumping From the Temple—Bad Religion

Then the devil took Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. Satan says, “If (since) you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (Matt 4:6). The devil then proceeds to quote Scripture (Psalm 91), twisting it to tempt Jesus to action.

Is Jesus going to swoop in and gain the approval of the religious establishment? He very easily could have removed all doubt to who he was.

A grand entrance would certainly gain recognition that he was indeed the Messiah. Yet he resists the temptation to gain approval of those religious folk. If Christ were going to convince the religious leaders, the “Doctors of the Law,” this would be the way to do it. But he doesn’t do it.

Jesus chooses not to parachute in and remove any obstacles from them hearing his message of the coming Kingdom.

He will make his presence known in the Temple, but only right after he drives out those practicing bad religion. This is quite different than the entrance he was tempted with by the devil.

FYI: This isn’t how you win the votes of the Sadducees on the left (who were in charge of the Temple) or the Pharisees in the “Religious Right” who were popular with the people.

Instead, Jesus storms in to the heart of Jewish religion, and turns it upside-down. The Temple is no longer the place of worship and symbol of God’s presence. For the Spirit of God has come to dwell in men. There is now something, someone, greater than the Temple.

He is Immanuel, God with us.

Jesus will not do any pandering to the religious elite. No sir. Jesus will shut down institutional religion for good and tell the ruling party that they are now out of a job.

There’s a new king in town. His name is Jesus… the Christ from Nazareth.

Kings and Kingdoms—The Politics of Jesus

Jesus has already rejected two powerful offers to play by the world’s rules and give the people the Messiah that was expected—a Messiah that fixes this present age by methods characteristic of this world.

Jesus refuses to manipulate people using the old avenues of power. Instead, he will offer people bread from heaven and true religion that’s good for the soul, which is much more satisfying.

Now Jesus faces his most difficult challenge yet. Jesus is taken to a high mountain. In the ancient world, mountains were seen as places where deities come to earth. From the pagan “high places” to the receiving of the Ten Commandments, God chose to work within this ancient mindset.

And this final temptation should be seen as an offer of divine importance.

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”  Matthew 4:8,9 (NIV)

Lest you think this temptation is merely about getting Christ to commit to devil worship, let’s look closer at what really faces Jesus in this final bout with the devil.

Christ is shown all the kingdoms of the world. The devil has power over them, which Jesus does not deny. The evil one still manipulates these kingdoms today. The Messiah will crush these kingdoms as Daniel prophesied (Dan 7:14). But how will he crush them?

Will he take the world by force using violence? Will he succumb to the way of the present evil age and the prince of the air by putting his hand to the plow of political power? Will he commit to the way of the devil—the source of all war and violence?

Will he be an Alexander, a Julius Caesar, an Augustus, or better yet… a King David?  This would not be the last time he is faced with this temptation (Matt. 16:23; 26:51,52; Jn. 6:15).

Christ redefines power in his rejection of earthly kingship. He rejects the avenue of earthly politics to advance the Kingdom of God. As God’s full revelation of his own character, he intentionally rejects power-over methods of coercion and force to advance the Kingdom.

Jesus embodies God’s will for his people and all those who seek to enter in to the rightful reign and rule of God on earth. Do not pass by this temptation and miss the foolishness of the Kingdom of God, for therein is power that we have not fully known in our day.

We must be willing to say to the prince of the power of the air and the kingdoms he controls, “Away from me!  For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matt. 4:10).

Walking the Kingdom Way

If we’re really concerned with WWJD, maybe we should first look at what Jesus would not do for the sake of clarity.

The temptations of Jesus prove that Christ rejects the secular concept of Messiah in both the way he confronts social injustices, instutionalized religion, and the political powers of his day.

Jesus is faced with three major social institutions: economic (bread), religious (temple), and the political (mountain).

Notice that Jesus would not capitulate to the world system. The rejection of these three temptations characterizes the entire ministry of Christ.

Until we’re willing to reject what Christ rejected, we have not fully accepted the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus.

If we desire to follow Christ, we must embrace the way of the suffering Messiah, instead of that way which is common to man.

We must walk the Kingdom way. And that way always looks like Jesus.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.


Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Intro

In every generation there are books whose author seeks to give correctives to popular thinking, and offer up a new vision for the future of the church. In order to do this successfully, I believe that authors must “return to the roots” of Christian faith and practice—helping his audience to see the wisdom of the past in context, in order to discover hope for the future.

Contextualizing the New Testament—making it applicable to our own day by first understanding it in the biblical context—is absolutely essential in every season and situation of the church. As Bob Dylan has sung, “the times they are a-changing.” And we must learn to read the Scriptures afresh if we want to discern together what it means to be Christ in community.

In my experience, American evangelicals are largely unable to contextualize, unaware of Christian history, and ignorant of the broad spectrum of theology that has been appreciated by the church down through the years. There are many reasons for this, which I will not go into in this series of posts. But I think it is necessary to ask that you agree with me that this is indeed the case before you can fully benefit from reading this series.

If you agree, or you are just curious, please keep reading.

In this series of posts, I would like to share five books with you that I believe are timely to American evangelicalism. The authors of these books come from a variety of backgrounds within evangelicalism. In case you have been disconnected, or just haven’t heard, I want to bring these books to your attention and try to convince you to read them (or buy the audio book and listen) at your convenience.

Look, I know that you are busy. I also know that reading may not be your thing. If that is the case, then I recommend reading with a partner or a small group. Set a goal and be intentional about it. Whatever it takes to digest the messages in these books. It will be well worth your time.

You might be passionately wrapped up in a specific issue right now (e.g. social justice, parenting, church planting, evangelism, etc.). I humbly suggest that you can still follow your passions and make room for these books.

If you are apart of an evangelical church, the messages set forth by these authors are critical for our time. I believe they will all in some way contribute to your spiritual journey, helping to fine-tune your own calling.

All of the books that I will share with you are very readable. Each book less than 200 pages! They are all written wonderfully well at the popular level. Some of the authors are biblical scholars, pastors, itinerant speakers, and one is a church planter and personal friend.

The books will address issues pertaining to: (1) Theology; (2) the Gospel; (3) the Bible; (4) Christology; and (5) Faith and Politics.

There are many provocative authors and books that touch on other important issues that will not be included in the list of forthcoming books. Nevertheless, I do believe that the books I have selected will go to the heart of our present situation, and the implications of those messages will spill over into everything else.

Finally, there will be a drawing for a book giveaway (one of the five books of your choice) for the person who follows the entire series and shares each post on facebook or twitter. Make sure we are friends on those networks.

Let me know that you have posted each link and that you want to be entered into the drawing for a free book! You can do this by giving me a link and a personal note in the comment section at the end of this series.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Read the next post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book One


The Jewish Religious World of Jesus

The Jewish Religious World of Jesus—A Brief Overview

There is a great deal of misunderstanding that often derives from a reading of the New Testament when the modern reader does not consider the religious matrix of the first-century.

Ultimately, proper application to our own situation suffers tremendously.

In the last 20 years, biblical scholars have taken great strides in discovering the world of Second-Temple Judaism. This new wealth of information has made it possible for the church to better understand the religious world of Jesus. Placing Jesus within his own context, helps us to see him in our own.

Scholars are learning that the Jewish Religious landscape was much more multi-faceted than previously imagined.

N.T. Wright has written, “the one thing we can safely say about first-century Judaism is that there is no such thing as first-century Judaism, and that it may be best to speak of ‘Judaisms,’ plural” (Wright, 244).

In the previous two centuries before Jesus, political and religious strife created a tumultuous climate, especially in the region of Palestine.

The successful Maccabean Revolt, and then the people’s utter disgust with the failure of the Hasmonean Dynasty, had largely brought about an apocalyptic worldview, deep longings for a Jewish Messiah to establish the kingdom of God on the earth, and a hope in the imminent restoration of Israel according to God’s covenantal faithfulness.

There were several religious parties and sects that grew up during this period, and they were in full bloom during the ministry of Jesus.

This article will briefly examine what is currently known about those Jewish Religious groups that existed in the time of Jesus, and beckon the reader to consider what Jesus’ relationship was to them.

Pharisees

The Pharisees emerge as the most popular of all religious groups in the first-century. The etymology of the name Pharisee is uncertain, but some scholars believe the name is derived from the Hebrew word parush, which means “separation” or “consecration.”

This religious sect has commonly been labeled as strict legalists who were bent on oppressing people with burdensome rules for their own self-righteous pleasure. But that may not be an entirely accurate portrayal.

Jesus did indeed speak harsh words to these religious leaders, calling them hypocrites and “white washed tombs” (Matt. 23). His words of rebuke were certainly the strongest with the Pharisees.

However, it appears that Jesus may have had more in common with the Pharisees than any other religious group in the first-century.

So, who were these teachers of the law? Who were the “scribes” and Pharisees? And why was Jesus so bothered by this religious group?

The Pharisees were deeply concerned about Torah and they actively sought ways to find fresh interpretions and apply the Scripture to a world on the move. The “scribes” were those specifically trained in interpreting Torah. Although the scribes did not belong to any one specific party, it seems that they resonated with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and eternal life and punishment. They also were accepting of other more recent theological developments regarding angels and demons. The Pharisees were not only concerned about proper biblical interpretation, but also with proving their covenant faithfulness in ritual purity.

For the most part, the people trusted the guidance of the Pharisees as they influenced the life of the nation at the local level and showed great devotion to God. The Pharisees believed that Torah was for all people, and they made a concerted effort to keep the Law of Moses fresh and alive.

“Woe to you, blind guides!”

Why then does Jesus rebuke the Pharisees throughout the Gospels? It is because the Pharisees believed that rabbinical oral-interpretive traditions (i.e. “traditions of the elders”) were just as authoritative as the Torah itself.

Also, the Pharisaical purity practices led them to erect social distinctions between themselves and fellow Jews. It became rather difficult for Pharisees to maneuver in life after adhering to extra human-laws and traditions.

Jesus simply would not allow the accumulation of the petty Pharisaical traditions deter him from the divine law. Jesus was deeply troubled by the “yeast” of the Pharisees (Matt. 16:12).

It was a disregard for the Pharisaical traditions that placed Jesus at odds with this popular sect. The Pharisees were unwilling to depart from those interpretive traditions that they felt were the greatest display of God’s covenant faithfulness. For this, they sought to trap and kill him.

Had the Pharisees not been so fond of their own teachings, and had instead been open to the teachings of the Galilean rabbi, they may have possibly recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah promised in the Scriptures.

Sadducees

The Sadducees are remembered as the smaller aristocratic party that “combined conservative religious attitudes with power politics” (Ferguson, 519). Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees adhered to stricter interpretations, claiming only Torah as authoritative—even rejecting the Prophets and the Writings. They were the Religious Right of Jesus’ day.

What scholars learn about the Sadducees comes mainly from their opponents. The Sadducees are mostly remembered for their denial of the resurrection from the dead (Matt. 22:23). They had no use for the theological developments of the intertestamental period.

Their primary role as a priestly party was controlling the temple ritual. The Sadducees appear to be mostly interested in maintaining the status quo. Where most Jews detested the Roman imperial occupation of Palestine, the Sadducees enjoyed the peace, power, and influence that Rome was able to give them. They preferred the Pax Romana over the peace of Jesus.

They were only interested in serving God in so far as it didn’t require them to give up their secure position of prosperity or progress in their theology. It is worth noting that there is evidence of several Pharisees who followed Jesus, but there is not a single record of a Sadducee convert.

The Sadducees drop off the religious radar soon after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. These conservatives fade with the shifting of their world.

Essenes

The monastic sect that lived at Qumran, which is located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, were called the “Essenes.” The Essenes, according to Philo and Josephus, numbered over 4,000 men. This religious group believed they were the rightful heirs of God’s promises.

The Essenes communicated this belief by withdrawing from temple life in Jerusalem, believing the entire religious system was corrupt. They practiced extreme frugality, celibacy, and ritual purity.

Ritual purity was central to the Essene way of life as they began their day with a purification bath before dressing in standard white outer garments.

There were ritual morning prayers, communal meals, and daily agrarian duties. They may have also worked as shepherds, beekeepers, and craftsmen.

The Essenes held an apocalyptic worldview. They believed they were living in the last days and that the prophets pointed to their times. This can be seen throughout Qumran literature. The Essenes were anticipating a conquering Messiah and they believed that they were saving themselves as the faithful keepers of the covenant. All others were just religious pretenders.

They intensely studied and copied the Scriptures. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars have learned that the Essene community believed they were “sons of light” and the last remnant of God’s covenant.

Some scholars have suggested that John the Baptist may have emerged from the Qumran community.

Zealots, Sicarii, and Herodians

The Zealots are known as the extreme anti-Roman party with violent tendencies. Scholars point out that it is likely that these revolutionaries only differed from the Pharisees in their willingness to use violent force and sacrifice themselves for the sake of Jewish liberty.

The Zealots held a biblical hermeneutic that encouraged violent revolt against the enemies of God. Josephus has written, they were Jews expressing their conviction: “No lord, but God” (Jospehus, Ant. 18.1.6). Simon the Zealot was one of the Twelve disciples of Jesus (Matt. 10:4).

Another branch of the Zealots were the Sicarii, or “dagger men” (Acts 21:38). These terrorists would mingle among the crowds of people, especially during Jewish festivals, and strike down prominent Roman officials, only to quickly disappear back into the crowd undetected.

These were the men that held Herod’s wilderness compound, Masada, during the Jewish revolt which first began in AD 66. It was in this military fortress that hundreds of Sicarii, along with their families, would take their own lives in order to avoid capture by the Romans in AD 73. The Romans were impressed by the honor and bravery of these freedom fighters.

The Herodians were another political and religious group that carried great influence among the people of Palestine. They are mentioned only three times in the New Testament. As their name suggests, the Herodians were clearly partisan to the Herodian dynasty, but they are still seen joining with the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus (Mk. 3:6).

This is significant, since the Herodians were politically affiliated with Herod’s house, but religiously and economically in agreement with the Sadducees. The testimony of Matthew and Mark reveal that the Herodians were willing to work alongside their rivals to oppose Jesus of Nazareth.

Samaritans

Samaria was the hill country located between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. Jesus told a parable of a Good Samaritan who helped a man that was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road (Lk. 10:25-37). Several pious travelers walk right on by the helpless man, but it is the Samaritan that reflects the kingdom of God.

This story cuts to the heart of Jewish prejudices towards this religious and ethnic group. For the religious Jews living in the first-century, it is impossible to miss Jesus’ provocative challenge to reconsider popular opinion about a religious neighbor and fellow keeper of the covenant.

So who were the Samaritans? Why were they disliked among many Jews?

The Samaritans were considered an unclean and illegitimate “half-breed race” that was neither Jew nor Gentile. This was due to their practice of intermarrying with pagans, being descendants of the northern tribes that split from Judah after the time of Solomon, and their establishment of a rival temple on Mt. Gerizim.

The woman at the well discusses this point of contention with Jesus in John 4:1-42. Jesus proposes that the religious feud of temple worship is no longer relevant because the Messiah has come to set the world to rights.

Jesus indicates that God has something else in mind which goes beyond what was being anticipated and practiced by all religious Jews.

What Religious Brand Was Jesus?

It is worthy of careful consideration that Jesus did not entirely agree with any Jewish Religious group of his own day. Jesus rebuked representatives and ideologies from each group in an effort to reform their ideas of covenant faithfulness, ritual purity, and Messianic expectations.

For some of these religious folk, he did affirm that certain points of their theology were correct, still they needed to be refined through his own divine interpretation of Scripture (Jn. 5:39). Jesus claimed to be the only one able to interpret and teach without any blind spots or lapse in judgment.

Jesus refused to affiliate himself with any of the Jewish denominations of his day. He would not allow himself to be pigeonholed, and he was angered by the efforts other Jews made to place God in a box, constrained by their own theological and philosophical paradigms.

No, Jesus kept a healthy distance from these religious groups and he refused to weigh in on the hot political and religious debates of the day.

Jesus turned the tables on his opponents. He shocked his audience by challenging their view of the Father’s love, teaching the inclusion of all those that welcomed him as Messiah, and proclaiming himself savior of the world.

Instead of joining these religious groups, Jesus gave a clear and resounding call, “Come, follow me” (Mk. 1:17). And the invitation still stands today.

Suggested Reading

  • DeSilva, David. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
  • Evans, Craig, and Stanley Porter. Dictionary of New Testament Background. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
  • Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
  • VanderKam, James. An Introduction to Early Judaism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.
  • Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God, Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

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