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All About the Family

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The book of Genesis gives us many answers, if we’ll only listen.  The first several chapters, especially, do a marvelous job explaining intuitively the relationship between God and man, sin and death.  We appreciate this partly because it satisfies our curiosity about the origins of the universe, and of life; but the answers go beyond, and start telling us not only the way things are, but also what we ought to do about it.  The story of creation is a record of God’s commandments, bringing things and eventually people into existence by calling them into being out of nothing; but sitting right at the transition between this story and the next chapter is the first general commandment, not a quotation from God within the narrative, but an eternal law.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2.24)

This instruction—to leave parents and be joined to one’s spouse—seems so obvious that we take it for granted.  Yet, today there are many in the world who wish to play the part of the serpent from the next chapter, and convince us that the truth is really the opposite of what God said.  If we were to forget everything we think we know, and treat God’s commandment as if it contained all the answers, what would we discover?

Therefore a man…

God expects men and women to fulfill the particular roles he has assigned.  In nearly every case, the animals he created are designed to reproduce sexually, and even the plants are mostly divided into male and female at some level; but only with human beings was this considered important enough to warrant a mention in the text:

So God created man in his own image,

        in the image of God he created him;

        male and female he created them. (Genesis 1.27)

Both are made in God’s image, but male and female are obviously different, never mind that our society has been trying desperately to change that fact, even carving up the bodies of children in a horrible, but ultimately vain attempt to deny the obvious.  Those using technology to pharmaceutically and surgically alter the form of bodies may tell themselves they have become like God (cf. Ge 3.5), creating in their own image; but all they’ve really done is to mangle that which God made and declared “good” (Ge 1.31).

…shall leave his father and his mother…

God expects men to be active and decisive, leaving the comfort of his parents’ home and setting out to build his own.  This does not, of course, mean that women have no agency, or expectations to fulfill before God.  But God did not have Moses write, “therefore a person shall leave his or her parents and hold fast to his or her spouse.”  There’s a reason for the gendered language.

While we’re at it, take note that, according to the pattern, the man ought to have a father and mother to leave.  Not a single mother, nor a father and stepmother, nor a pair of fathers, nor a father and a mother and another mother, nor a village, nor any other combination than a father and a mother.  There will be understandable exceptions to the rule, for example when one parent dies while the child is still at home.  But God’s expectation is clear: a nuclear family comprising a father, a mother, and children who remain in their home until they grow up and leave.

…and hold fast to his wife…

This isn’t a requirement that all men marry—both the Law of Moses and Jesus in the New Testament permit both men and women to remain unmarried—the New Testament even encourages it for some (cf. Mt 19.12, 1Co 7.8).  But it is a general requirement.  God told the human race to “Be fruitful and multiply” (e.g. Ge 1.28), and built into us an incredibly strong  desire to do so.  He declared all of creation to be good, except for one thing: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Ge 2.18).  His expectation is that most of us should seek to satisfy that desire to procreate, and to do it within the boundaries he has established—a man and a woman, creating a copy of the household the man has left.

…and they shall become one flesh.

This is obviously an allusion to the anatomical appropriateness of sexual coupling—it’s so fundamental that we refer to electrical and plumbing components as “male” and “female” to illustrate their function.  A male fitting without a corresponding female mate serves very little purpose.  God’s instruction here has to do with more than closing a circuit, though.  He says that joining the two results, not in two bodies connected, but one body.  “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19.6).

§

So, the pattern is clear: a man and a woman marry and form their own family, following the template of those into which they were born.  This means the fulfilling of their roles, a strong and exclusive sexual relationship, and the generation of children, who will one day be released into the world to continue the cycle.  Of course, the world is tainted by sin, and people find all sorts of ways to complicate the situation.  But it’s important to realize that, as with the rest of Genesis, this is about more than fleshly restrictions and reasons to find fault with each other.  Since we are made in God’s image, there’s more to us than flesh.  There are spiritual implications, too!  God’s Son and heir suffered death on the cross in order to adopt us into the family, so that we may be children in “the household of God” (1 Pe 4.17), with all of the responsibilities and blessings that go along with that relationship. It’s all about the family, and it always has been.

Jeremy Nettles

Cycles of Sin

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. (Judges 2.18-19)

When we read about the Israelites’ long history, we are by turns saddened and maddened.  On one hand, we tend to show some understanding for many of their sins, since we’re well acquainted with our own failures.  On the other hand, how could they be so dense, so obstinate?!  At some point our patience with them is exhausted, as it often is when we see a neighbor or brother repeatedly running headlong into destructive and sinful behavior.  When we see such a person in distress, obviously reaping what he has sown (Ga 6.7), we’re inclined to ask, “well, what did you expect to happen?”  We all find ourselves in such predicaments, though.  Perhaps it’s not as extreme as the situation of the addict who’s lost his job, his family, his home, and his friends, as a result of indulging his appetite at their expense; but from a young age we often require painful consequences to learn a lesson.  We learn that we shouldn’t touch the hot stove—not because it’s morally wrong to deliberately damage the bodies God gave us, but because it hurts!  We’re supposed to learn from these natural consequences, and then begin to forecast what will result from, for example, walking into traffic, without having to test it to see whether our hypothesis is correct, or the instructions of our leaders.  When we see someone willfully ignoring the obvious consequences and continuing into reckless behavior for the sake of momentary pleasure, we’re not sure how we could possibly help.  What could we say or do that would get them to change course, when they ignore that?

The Israelites do this throughout the book of Judges.  Part of the problem lies in the fact that it’s not only individuals making foolish choices to continue sinning against God, as if the results will be different this time; instead, it’s a crowd of people, spanning a period of many generations.  Sometimes there’s wisdom in a crowd, checking the more extreme impulses of an individual; but more often there’s folly instead.  When a bad behavior becomes common, the crowd influences those who might have otherwise rejected it to question their own judgment in favor of the crowd's, and thus be led along into the same bad behavior.

Both the crowd and the individual can be influenced to change—to repent—by consequences.  But all too often, as soon as the pain disappears, we go right back into the same old sin.  That’s what Israel did, over and over.  They rejected God, God allowed the Mesopotamians to oppress them, they returned to God and cried for help, and he sent Othniel to save them.  They forgot the Mesopotamian oppression and rejected God again, so God allowed the Moabites to oppress them, after which they returned to God and cried out for help, and he sent Ehud to save them.  They forgot again, rejected God again, and the cycle continued with the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Midianites, their fellow Israelites, and the Ammonites taking turns oppressing them. 

The generation that followed Joshua into the promised land reflected immense growth beyond their fathers, who’d rebelled constantly against God and his chosen human representatives.  It’s not that this new generation was perfect—we can read about several of their sins and shortcomings.  But on the whole, they had made a strong commitment to remain faithful to the Lord. 

Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel. (Joshua 24.31)

We might have thought the nation had put away certain sins for good; but the next  generation proves us horribly wrong.

And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2.10-11)

All too often, individuals do the same thing, in a single lifetime.  After a period spent in open rebellion to God, they learn from the natural consequences of their actions and make a commitment to God that lasts a while.  But before long, that gives way to old habits of sin, until consequences produce sorrow and repentance, which lasts until the next relapse.  Often the core sin has to do with drugs, or sex, or money, and just as often it comes with a host of other sins in service of carrying out, or covering up, the central transgression.  Meanwhile, what do we silently scream at the Israelites?  What did you think was going to happen?  Why won’t you learn your lesson?  Jesus taught about this:

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11.24-26)

Why not, instead, give the evil spirit no room to occupy?  Why not, instead, give his room to Christ, forever?  Like Paul, we should say,

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2.20)

Jeremy Nettles

Arguing with God

Sunday, January 15, 2023

               “But how can a man be in the right before God?

If one wished to contend with him,

               one could not answer him once in a thousand times.

He is wise in heart and mighty in strength

               —who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?…

               Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ …

Though I am in the right, I cannot answer him;

               I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.

If I summoned him and he answered me,

               I would not believe that he was listening to my voice.” (Job 9.1-16)

The book of Job doesn’t get its fair share of attention. It is generally divided into three parts.  Part 1 comprises chapters 1 and 2, and details how Job, though righteous, lost his family, wealth, and health.  Part 3, comprising chapter 42, explains how God restored Job’s fortunes.  Part 2, the 39 chapters in between…well, most people skip those.

You may notice that, by those numbers, the attention is focused on far less than even a tenth of the book.  And to be fair, it’s a slight exaggeration of the problem—but only a slight one.  Yet, if we’re willing to put in the effort, we’ll find Job is one of the most important books of the Bible, grappling with the big questions and frustrations we often face in this world of sin and death.  Job’s three friends determined to visit him in his sorrow and provide comfort, as friends should.  However, they made unwarranted assumptions about why all this calamity befell Job, and took issue with things Job said, when he was unwilling to accept the blame.

Job’s friends thought God was punishing him for some grievous sin he’d committed—not that they made specific accusations.  They simply assumed that we always get what we deserve in life, despite ample evidence to the contrary.  Job didn’t claim to be perfectly pure and sinless; but he knew he hadn’t done anything to specifically deserve this suffering, certainly nothing worse than the behavior of many who live long and prosperous lives, free from the sort of disaster he’d experienced.  The argument raged back and forth, with both sides trying different tactics but refusing to budge from their positions.  In one of Job’s speeches, he stops trying to convince his friends he’s innocent, and instead complains that he’d prefer to have the argument with someone whose judgment would actually matter—namely, God.  And that’s where we began, in chapter 9.  When we consider all that Job says, it’s clear he’s not just pointing out the universal sinfulness of mankind.  That’s what we might have thought, from verse 2 alone: “But how can a man be in the right before God?”  Yet a few sentences later, he adds, “Though I am in the right, I cannot answer him” (v15).  He maintains that he’s in the right; but he also doesn’t say that God has done wrong.  He knows better than that—hence his confusion.  Someone must be to blame here, but he knows it’s not him, and he knows it’s not God.  Nevertheless, he doesn’t know where else to go with his complaint, but to God, the Judge of all.

He envisions God’s heavenly court—the same image with which the book began—and puts himself in the position of a defendant, with his righteousness in question and a sentence not only looming over his head, but already enacted.  God is the Judge overseeing the trial, but then, who’s the accuser, pressing the charge against him?  With the benefit of having read chapters 1 and 2, we know that it’s Satan; but Job himself doesn’t know that!  He can only conclude that God is the one prosecuting him, and so he says, “I must appeal for mercy to my accuser” (v15).

In essence, Job’s frustration comes from concluding that he stands no chance at all of securing a favorable verdict, and relief from his unjust punishment, because he’d be arguing against God, and he knows that, however right he may be, that’s an un-winnable battle, and one he has no right to undertake in the first place.  He can’t even believe the Judge is impartial, because he’s also the prosecutor!  We can’t fault Job for misunderstanding what was going on in God’s heavenly court—God himself certainly didn’t.  Yet, we now know it was really Satan standing before God as accuser, prosecuting Job for the supposed evil in his heart.

Isn’t that comforting?  Well, perhaps not.  On one hand, it reassures us that God is impartial and perfectly just; on the other hand, it leaves us in the position of trying to out-argue the lord of all evil, who’s extremely skilled in his craft—and on top of this, we know that, despite our best intentions, he does have legitimate accusations to bring against us!  But that’s not the whole story.  We don’t have to plead our case alone. 

But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2.1-2)

Praise the Lord!  The only one with a right to stand before God and plead on our behalf, his own blameless Son, is willing to take up our case, and even to prosecute our accuser!

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world… And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12.9-11)

Are you like Job, frustratedly taking up a losing argument with God?  Or perhaps you’re trying to win the battle against Satan on your own.  Only one man has ever battled Satan and come away unscathed.  He offers his help to each of us.  Will you take it?

Jeremy Nettles

What Should You Do First?

Sunday, January 08, 2023

At that time Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. And there, in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. (Joshua 8.30-32)

This event took place just after the conquest of Jericho and Ai, the first phase of Israel’s military campaign to destroy and displace the inhabitants of the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, 500 years before.  The very next chapter opens by telling us,

As soon as all the kings who were beyond the Jordan…heard of this, they gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel. (Joshua 9.1-2)

Meanwhile, what were the Israelites doing?  Putting their camp into a defensive posture? Drawing up plans of attack against this opposition?  Pressing their advantage of surprise, and using that initiative to knock members of this new anti-Israel alliance out of the fight individually, rather than facing them all together?  No, they were building altars and offering sacrifices, while their military leader made a copy of the law.  Someone might object that there’s nothing in the text to suggest that Joshua was aware the peoples of the land were organizing and preparing to mount a collective defense; on the other hand, any reasonably competent adult would expect that to be the case, and this was far from the first time Joshua had managed troops in battle—he’d led the Israelites’ defense against Amalek in Exodus 17, 40 years before, and the Israelites had just recently conquered the lands to the east of the Jordan, defeating powerful kings to do so.  They were not strangers to war.  Yet here they were, ignoring the military reality on the ground, and focusing instead on religious matters that probably could have waited until they’d established a more secure position.

And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. (Joshua 8.33)

We’re reminded now a second time that the Israelites were doing these things because Moses had commanded it.  Near the end of his life, as he gave one last address to his people, preparing them to enter the Promised Land without him, he told them to do exactly this (De 27).  Rather than first conquering the land—a task which ended up taking Israel some five years to complete—and then worry about fulfilling this commandment, Joshua led the entire nation 20 miles out of its way, in hostile territory, in the middle of their war of conquest, to assemble the nation on the hillsides and offer sacrifices to God on their behalf.  But that’s not all they did.

And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. (Joshua 8.34-35)

All of this appears, from a fleshly perspective, to be putting the cart before the horse.  But Joshua has seen the truth more clearly.  He’s perfectly applied the proverb, “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house” (Pr 24.27).  We might be tempted to paraphrase this, get your priorities straight, but that’s not really the whole point.  The idea is that we often confuse our priorities, because we fail to acknowledge the relationship between them.  We might think, since we work hard at our jobs in order to both literally and figuratively build our houses, that the house is the the more important of the two.  But while we can tolerate a less than optimal living situation, we can’t put up with starving to death because we were too busy sorting out our interior decorating, and missed the proper planting season.  We might argue that we can’t work effectively, without a nice place to sleep; but in reality we can’t maintain a nice place to sleep for very long, if we’re unwilling to work.

Joshua certainly understood the relationship between the people’s dedication to God, and their conquest of the land they stood to inherit.  He provides an excellent example for us to follow, today.  Instead of focusing on the physical and giving whatever was left over to God, he made God the priority, and trusted God to give them the land, as he had promised, regardless of the Gentiles’ opposition.  This is the same point Jesus made, when he taught that we should

“not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6.31-33)

What are your priorities?  What stands between you and God?  Are you putting off dedicating yourself to a life in his service, until you can accomplish something in the physical world?  We all have responsibilities, but which is the most important?  What should you do first?

Jeremy Nettles

Does God Ever Give Us More than We Can Handle?

Sunday, January 01, 2023

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1.8-9)

In the age of TikTok theology, it shouldn’t be surprising to see excessive controversy over minor quibbles, and as our society moves ever farther down the road of policing each other’s words, it was, perhaps, inevitable that arguments would arise over whether certain platitudes are theologically correct.  One of these arguments concerns the oft-repeated words of encouragement, “God will never give you more in life than you can handle.”  The passage above seems to disagree with that sentiment!  On the contrary, Paul says the reason God gives us trials is to teach us to  “rely not on ourselves but on God.”  On top of that, while the platitude is so often repeated, usually word-for-word and with a sense of authority, no such verse appears anywhere in the Bible!  Imagine trying to encourage a fellow Christian using words that came, not from God, but from man!  Perhaps the cliche is wrong, and should be replaced: God will give you more than you can handle!

Of course, that sentence isn’t in the Bible, either.  It’s a conclusion drawn from the passage quoted above.  But if we can defend our replacement on those grounds, then we should really consider the defense given for the more common version of the proverb.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10.13)

Well, that seems to support the notion that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—at least in the context of temptation.  But that’s a more specialized application, dealing with sin, not just the everyday trials of life, right?  Not exactly.  Paul pointed out that God gives us unbearable trials to teach us to rely on him, as we established at the start.  But he also says we won’t be tempted more than we can handle; and, as James tells us,

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1.13-14)

So, unbearable trials come from God, and temptations come from Satan—or from our own lusts.  Yet, it’s clear that God must be involved in that procedure, in order to restrain Satan.  We can even see an example of this process in action, through Job.

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (Job 1.8-12)

This passage illustrates an uncomfortable fact for those arguing against our old platitude: trial and temptation are, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder.  In the New Testament, there’s only one Greek word (πειρασμός-peirasmos—and its derivatives) that is translated trial or temptation, depending on the context.  From Satan’s perspective, what he was about to do to Job was certainly a series of temptations—he was eagerly hoping Job would fail.  From God’s perspective, it was a series of trials, which God wanted Job to successfully pass—which is why he planted the notion in Satan’s mind in the first place. 

Ultimately, all trials can also be viewed as temptations—and God has guaranteed that any temptation that overtakes us is within our ability to withstand.  We can handle them!  But what does it mean, to handle trials and temptations?  It doesn’t mean we have the ability to get out of them, or to change the course of the world’s events, molding them to suit our own desires.  If that’s what you mean by “handle,” then God will absolutely give you more than you can handle!  But what really matters is to experience a life full of trials, while keeping your relationship with God intact.  God assures us that this—not the bare minimum, but the only thing that truly matters in the end—is within our ability.

But how?  Let’s go back to Job—how did he successfully “handle” his unbearable trials?  By remaining faithful to God, and relying completely on him!  We’re back where we started.  Join your own efforts with Christ’s strength—as Paul did, while suffering both trial and temptation in a Roman prison: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Php 4.13).  Is Paul arrogantly dismissing the weight of his trial?  Far from it.  Is he refusing to put in effort of his own, on the grounds that it’s up to Jesus?  On the contrary, he says, I can do it. It’s a huge mistake to think you have within yourself the strength to bear whatever comes your way in this life; one day, you’ll discover you don’t.  But it’s also a mistake to surrender to your trials—that’s not endurance, or character or hope—the fruits suffering should produce in us (Ro 5.3-5).  Instead of getting caught up in arguments such as this one, focus on being prepared for trials, and doing all things through Christ, who strengthens you.

Jeremy Nettles

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