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Substance and EvidenceSunday, June 12, 2022
Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. (Hebrews 10.35-11.2, KJV)
These words introduce one of the most justly beloved passages in the Bible, often called something like, “Faith’s Hall of Fame,” consisting of the remainder of Hebrews 11. But the description of faith as “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen,” is somewhat befuddling. In particular, to call faith “evidence” seems irrational and even irresponsible—faith is synonymous with belief, but what is evidence, if not reason to believe? If our reason for believing something is that we believe it…well, that’s just circular reasoning. Someone could proclaim to have faith that the earth is flat, and when challenged, justify that belief on the evidence of his own belief, regardless of observation or reason. Is faith in Christ adequate reason to have faith in Christ? Of course not. The trouble certainly isn’t that the Scripture is wrong; perhaps the translators are at fault? A comparison with other translations, most of which render the text a bit differently, seems to validate that theory, but it’s not fair. The translators who produced the King James Bible—in 1611— didn’t get it wrong, but they translated in a way that is easy to misunderstand, especially for us, four centuries later. Let’s take the offending verse (He 11.1) one clause at a time.
The first reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for.” The Greek word behind “substance” is ὑπόστασις-hupostasis, a compound of ὑπό-hupo-“under” and στάσις-stasis-“standing/position.” These building blocks translate directly into an equivalent Latin compound, substantia, in which our English word, “substance,” is readily visible. But while today we generally use this word to mean physical matter, it didn’t always mean this. In fact, where this Greek word appears elsewhere in the New Testament, the King James translators chose to render it using the English word, “confidence,” in three out of four instances (2Co 9.4 & 11.17; He 3.14). That leaves one other, Hebrews 1.3, where the author definitely does not mean confidence, but in 3.14 he obviously does, and considering the context, it’s clear that’s what he means here in chapter 11 as well. It’s not such a drastic difference as we might think—the idea is that, although the object of hope remains unseen (hence “hope,” cf. Ro 8.24), the person with faith behaves as if he sees or holds in his hands the very essence of the things he can’t actually see or hold.
That brings us to the second clause, “the evidence of things not seen,” where our discussion began. To recap, we think of evidence as a reason to believe—but since “faith” is synonymous with “belief,” we’re running in a circle, saying that belief is a reason to believe. But that’s not what the author meant, and it’s probably not what the King James translators meant, either. We could paraphrase their intent something like this: “faith is…treating as evident something that isn’t actually visible.” This Greek word, ἔλεγχος-elengchos (and its verbal forms) is used more frequently in the New Testament than hupostasis (Mt 18.15; Lk 3.19; Jn 3.20, 8.46, 16.8; 1Co 14.24; Ep 5.11 & 13; 1Ti 5.20; 2Ti 4.2; Ti 1.9 & 13, 2.15; He 12.5; Ja 2.9; Jd 15; Re 3.19). Like the first example, rendering it “evidence” in this case makes it an outlier. Everywhere else, the KJV reads “reproof,” “rebuke,” “convict,” or other such things. Clearly faith is not exactly a rebuke, but how about a conviction? That makes more sense—being convinced of something you can’t fully know through observation. Most of the more modern translations not only account for changes in our language, but strive for greater clarity—even as far back as the ASV in 1901, Hebrews 11.1 was translated, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” From the standpoint of accurate and understandable translation, it’s tough to improve upon that!
Why does all of this matter? Well, that much-beloved list of the faithful and their deeds, which fills the rest of the chapter, relies on this definition. The author of Hebrews is about to use the word, “faith,” two dozen times more in this chapter, and it’s important to understand his working definition of the term, if we want to understand the rest of what he says about it. There’s plenty for us to learn from each faithful individual; they’re being held up as exemplary for a reason! But that’s not the point he’s making. That point is cumulative: these great examples of faith accomplished all these amazing things, or were used or blessed by God in amazing ways, and why? Because they treated their hope as fact, and lived as if certain things were obvious to them, even though they couldn’t see or touch them. That’s the pitch the author is making to his audience—and by extension, to us. It’s hard to feel confident as years go by and we still haven’t seen any sign of Christ’s return; but look what these heroes accomplished, and how long they had to wait, how they persevered, and how highly we regard them for keeping the faith.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith... (Hebrews 12.1-2)
Higher than the EarthSunday, June 05, 2022
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55.6-9)
This passage reminds of us several important things: first, that God is far wiser and more righteous than we are. Next, that we have a responsibility to call on him and seek his will and ways. It further reminds us that, whenever our attitudes and actions don’t line up with his standards, we are obligated to admit it, and change to conform to him.
When we do this, God won’t ever gloat over us, or call us foolish, or hold our mistakes over our heads. Instead, he treats us with compassion and abundantly pardons our transgressions. “Call upon him while he is near,” we are told. It’s not an unreasonable expectation—that we must search high and low, leaving no stone unturned, and finally, if we work hard enough and are graced with a healthy dose of luck, perhaps we may find him. Rather, he makes himself accessible to those who are willing to listen and obey. On the other hand, just because he makes himself available doesn’t mean he’s at our beck and call, or that he’ll be so understanding of our position as to change his mind about what’s right and wrong. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” We’re the ones who need to change—not him! We’re the ones who are easily mistaken—not him! We’re the ones who don’t really know what’s good for us—God knows everything! He even knows our very thoughts, and will hold us accountable for which ones we entertain, dwell upon, and pursue.
But while the fact of God’s omniscience scares us somewhat—after all, who hasn’t harbored a hateful, lustful, or arrogant thought?—this very same passage reminds us that God is not sitting in heaven, slowly building up the most damning case possible against each one of us, cackling maniacally all the while. Rather, like any good father who knows his kids and can read their thoughts, he wants us to succeed—wants us to mature, and grow, and reflect his own good will and character. “The Lord [will] have compassion on” the one who turns from his sin and seeks God’s will. If we’re honest with ourselves, and not completely deluded by our own arrogance, it’s difficult for us to believe, or even comprehend that the perfect, righteous, all-knowing, and all-powerful God would feel anything but disdain for such awful people as we are. The apostle Peter clearly demonstrated this for us, when Jesus performed a miracle that proved to be a great blessing to the fisherman:
And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5.4-8)
If Peter had been an utterly selfish, uncaring sinner, we’d have expected him to see the immense potential for financial gain in Jesus’ great power, and try to build a relationship with him for his own benefit; but no. For all his faults, when confronted by such power, and having already been told that this man is the Messiah (Jn 1.41), he simply melted and admitted his own great faults, which he couldn’t believe Jesus would tolerate.
Yet, Jesus already knew Peter wasn’t perfect. “He knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn 2.24b-25). He wanted Peter to follow him, anyway. He wanted to redeem him, anyway. God always seeks to show compassion on us. We have a high priest who’s been through the struggles of human life, and sympathizes with our weaknesses (He 4.15). He shows us the way through the trials, because he navigated that path successfully, himself.
This brings us back to our passage in Isaiah, which also closes with a reminder that where we have failed, God has succeeded: “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We can see the sky, but we can never reach out and grasp it. We’re simply not built for the heavens. But God has given us a glimpse of himself through their beauty, order, and complexity. It’s not a mere accident that even the pagans of the world throughout history have gazed at the sun, moon, and stars, and marveled at them—even going so far as to worship them, in most cases. We shouldn’t mistake the heavens for God, but he built them in such a way as to teach us, intuitively, that he is there; that he is greater than we are; that, try as we might, we can never lay hold of him by our own power.
It is all the more amazing, then, that he makes himself known to us, and wants us for his children. He deserves all our respect and love. The offer of adoption doesn’t last forever, though. Judgment is coming, “at an hour you do not expect” (Lk 12.40). Call upon him, while he is near.
A Higher PurposeSunday, May 29, 2022
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13.1-3)
When reading the words of Jesus, we sometimes get so caught up in the teaching itself, that we fail to consider the details carefully woven into the narrative by the four Evangelists. Fair enough; if the alternative were to ignore what Jesus tells us and read the Gospels as mere works of literature, then we all ought to be perfectly happy to miss out on a clever juxtaposition from John, or a particularly vivid description from Mark. But ideally, we would give attention to the details, because understanding them will help us, in turn, to better understand Jesus. In this case, we make considerable progress toward a firmer grasp of Jesus’ teaching, by beginning with the question: what were the messengers of Pilate’s violent acts expecting Jesus to say about the situation?
We don’t find a clear cut answer in the text, but Luke is a very thoughtful writer (to say nothing of the Holy Spirit!). It’s reasonable to suggest, first, that he included this snippet of Jesus’ ministry for a profound purpose; and second, that by interrupting a long stretch of Jesus’ teaching with some unnamed persons’ contribution, he invites us to consider their motives. Perhaps it was as simple as this: the bloodbath was a recent event that shocked the populace, and so naturally it was the talk of the town. But considering what Pilate represented—Roman dominance—and the general sentiment among the Jews toward it—hatred—it would be naïve to think that the conversation was limited to the facts. Surely it branched into two related topics: passing judgment, and discussing what should be done about it. Surely, most people expected Jesus to issue some kind of condemnation of Pilate’s actions, and perhaps the sins of those awful Galileans, too—since most of those outside of Galilee were only slightly more fond of Galileans than they were of Pilate.
But, even though he could have rightly condemned all manner of evil involved in what had transpired, he went a different direction: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” It was common, especially during the final stages of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his crucifixion, for people to approach him with insincere questions. The Pharisees asked him whether they should pay taxes to Rome. The Sadducees asked him about family law in the resurrection. A lawyer asked him about the legal definition of the word, neighbor. Scribes were involved in asking him whether the law concerning capital punishment for adultery meant what it said. Usually these people were seeking to harm Jesus, but even that motivation was generally borne of selfishness, because he threatened their status. For most of these cases, there were two camps, corresponding to two politic0-religious parties, and the goal was to get Jesus to alienate one side or the other. In all cases, they were seeking to exalt themselves or their group, at the expense of someone else. In more modern terms, they were seeking to score cheap political points.
Jesus refused to give them what they wanted. In fact, on occasion he turned their own tactic back on them, asking questions such as, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Mt 21.25a). The chief priests’ and elders’ internal deliberations illuminate the tactic for us:
And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” (Matthew 21.25b-27a)
In each case, there is, of course, a simple answer to be found. But they're not after real answers, they’re after status and power. Jesus knows how the game is played, and refuses to go along. “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mt 21.27b)
This same game is played, today, and we should learn the lesson from Jesus—first, the lesson about repenting of sin and preparing for a more powerful judge than Pilate; and second, the lesson about the world’s self-serving behavior, often dressed up as compassion, or respect for truth, or desire for justice. It takes mere minutes for one person’s immense suffering to become a tool for another person’s self-promotion.
This doesn’t mean the politics don’t matter. Even if you simply refuse to pay attention, you’ll still have to deal with the ramifications of what others say and do. But Jesus peels back the veneer and shows us what’s really underneath. The differences between conservative Pharisees and liberal Sadducees were large, and while the Pharisees were wrong about a a great many things, on the whole they were at least closer to the letter of the law, if not the spirit, than were the Sadducees—who were pretty far from both letter and spirit! What really mattered, however, was God’s will, and neither party seemed to have given very much thought to that! Instead, they were concerned with their own petty, tribal jockeying for power.
Our society is—once again—in the throes of this same, disgusting, partisan, self-serving conflict, spurred by a horrible act of evil. There most certainly are answers and solutions to be found, but rather than picking a side of the fight, give your allegiance to a far higher authority. Concern yourself with God’s will.
Remember Your CreatorSunday, May 22, 2022
And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. (Luke 2.36-37)
In the year of our Lord 2022, the River Ridge congregation is made up primarily of young families with small children. This being the case, it should be no surprise that this period on the calendar—late spring and early summer—each year is subject to the same sort of competition for a slot on the schedule as has been common to parents broadly for a very long time. As the school year ends, and the short summer break ensues, schedules and routines are upended in favor of more unusual and, perhaps, more frivolous uses of time. Vacations, play dates, alterations to work schedules, and other impositions are suddenly the focus of attention for many parents. In all the hustle and bustle, in all the concerted attempts to make the best possible use of the relatively short stint of relaxed expectations and demands from the more structured institutions of school, where does God fit on your calendar?
We find an excellent example to follow in the Old Testament prophet, Daniel. When his fellow officials of the kingdom of Babylon colluded in order to deliberately discredit Daniel in the king’s eyes, they agreed:
“We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.” (Daniel 6.5)
Thereupon, they decided to convince King Darius to outlaw prayer, except for prayers directed toward the king himself, for a period of thirty days. Clearly, this goes far beyond the sorts of scheduling conflicts we encounter—in our case, it’s the desire to spend our time on things that may distract us from serving God; Daniel had the prospect of being torn limb from limb and eaten alive in a den of lions, to discourage him from spending his time on prayer to God. What was his response?
When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. (Daniel 6.10)
Daniel remembered what was really important, regardless of the distractions that were presented to him.
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12.1-7)
It’s good to recognize that these are wise words, but consider, for a moment—why should we remember our Creator in the days of our youth? In all this long, plodding, poetic, image-rich sentence, has Solomon clearly stated the reason we should do this? No, not really; instead, he went on at length about the evils of age, using some of the most vivid metaphors found in the whole Bible to make his point. But the answer isn’t so far out of sight. The point is that all of these imminent weaknesses, struggles, and pains will make it harder to serve God in old age, than it was during youth.
It’s easy to tell ourselves, “I just don’t have time! When things settle down, then I’ll start devoting more of my time and effort to the Lord and his church.” This is a farce. In the first place, that period of time that we always expect to see, just around corner, seems at each new turn to be just as far away as it was at the last. As children grow older and move out, and as parents become what our culture terms “empty-nesters,” up pops some new and apparently pressing need, and suddenly your schedule is full again—perhaps this time with slightly less noble pursuits than the task of raising up children. And the same refrain is heard again: “I just don’t have time! When things settle down…”
Even ignoring that—even, let’s say, in the cases of those who really do fill their newly open schedules with the pursuit of serving God and working in the Lord’s vineyard, like the old, widowed prophetess Anna in the first passage quoted above—if we haven’t focused on God when we were busier, then what habit have our children learned, through all those many years when Dad and Mom “didn’t have time” for spiritual endeavors? Making the effort matters more when it’s inconvenient. What do you have to do at any given moment, that’s more important than worshiping God, keeping his commandments, and teaching the next generation to do the same? The point of life on earth is to come to know God, serve him, and pursue the continuation of a relationship with him after death. Don’t plan to serve him later—give yourself to his service, today!
Approving of EvilSunday, May 15, 2022
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. (Revelation 13.16-17)
There have been many attempts to interpret this passage, usually linking the mark to a specific phenomenon of today—whenever “today” happens to be. These are almost always misguided, but not because current events fail to fulfill the prophecies. Rather, focusing on one particular fulfillment often keeps us from recognizing that there have been countless other fulfillments. One instance, pertaining to the Roman Empire and its persecution of the early church, was uniquely important to the original audience. But human nature has not changed, nor has the relationship of the church to the world.
As we consider the passage above, and especially the beast’s technique of economically ostracizing those who won’t worship him, it’s tough not to see some reflections of this in the events of the past couple years. Many felt ostracized over their choice whether to wear a mask, or get a vaccine, and on the social level it went both ways, depending on the prevailing opinion of the locale. When governments got involved, all over the world people faced a dilemma: fall in line and obey intrusive rules, or be cut off from most of the economy. Neither the mask nor the vaccine was the mark of the beast, but the way it was imposed, especially on people who opposed it on moral grounds, has a lot in common with what we read in Revelation 13. Those who object to the current thing due to conscience face an uphill climb, trying to determine how to respond in a way that reflects the image of Christ.
Today, there’s a concerted effort made by government, media, and corporate actors to undermine the morals passed down to us and informed by the Bible. These include heterosexual monogamy, law and order, the value of hard work and knowledge, and retributive justice—that is, penalties imposed on those who harm others and disrupt the order. The latest has been the effort to indoctrinate children into sexual disorder, and browbeat adults into going along. When a tech company introduces a new emoji in the form of a pregnant man; when a cookie company airs commercials that don’t advertise its product but instead celebrate sexual perversion; when a mainstream TV channel begins a new series celebrating young boys whose parents encourage them to dress up like girls and dance in sexually provocative fashion before cheering adults; when a children’s media behemoth speaks out in favor of teaching sexual perversion in public schools; when a government names a man the highest-ranking woman in history; and when media outlets cry crocodile tears over the evils of “doxxing”—publishing private information about private citizens to target them for retribution—and then openly doxxes its enemies…well, it’s difficult to miss that there’s a major push to cudgel the public into line, and bar them from society until they accept something like the mark of the beast.
Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1.32)
All of this raises questions for the Christian, who must not only refrain from participating in such sinful behavior, but also from giving approval to those who do. But when it’s all around, and often coming from businesses, every financial transaction could be seen as a vote in favor of this garbage; how can we remain pure? It’s not the case that God disapproves of all transactions undertaken with those who reject his commandments—we’re not supposed to leave the world (1Co 5.9-10). And yet, we’re not supposed to participate in the world’s sins; could doing business with someone constitute support?
There are no specific instructions in the New Testament about this, but Paul told the Christians at Corinth how to deal with a similar problem. After instructing them to bear with each other’s conscience and avoid causing offense, he gave a clear and practical application of the principle:
If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. (1 Corinthians 10.27-29)
The Christian must shun sin, but participation in a sinful society is acceptable, because all societies are sinful. Yet an unbeliever may point out the sin to you, as if to deliberately make you choose between approving the sin, and being shunned from society. God doesn’t care about the meat—or the cookie, or the entertainment platform—but he does care that his people be seen as holy. The pattern today is the same: don’t worry about whether an individual or company is engaged in sin before doing business with them. None of us lives up to that standard. But this changes, when they start deliberately telling you about it. Openly flaunting their sin is often a tactic people use to dare you to speak up—to tempt you into compromising your principles. Other times it’s because a company has caved to threats from activists who want the same thing—for you to compromise your principles. Don’t give in. It’s not just about your conscience, but his. Love is not going along to get along. Love is not giving implicit approval to destructive sin. Love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1Co 13.6).