Everyone likes to see an evil person get the punishment everyone believes he deserves. When John Wayne Gacy was executed in 1994, few tears were shed on his behalf, and many comments mourned the fact that Continue reading Nobody Wants to Repent
‘One cannot reduce the whole of religious theology, that is to say the question of how different religions relate to one another, to a yes-and-no question. It amounts to doing violence to a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be found there.’
Before you know who made this statement and on what occasion, please read it again and ponder what you think it means. What could be the purpose for a statement like this one? What does it say about the value the speaker attributes to any religion?
The statement was made by the head of the Lutheran Church of Sweden in answer to a question. Antje Jackelén was asked “Does Jesus provide a truer picture of God than Muhammed?” The quotation above was her answer. That she made this statement while holding a leadership position in an organization which alleges to be a Christian church is disturbing. That the people who were tasked with selecting a national leader for that church chose this woman rather than the bishop who flatly answered “Yes” is extremely disturbing. Any child in Sunday School who knows that Jesus is God in the flesh could answer this question, yet the national leader of the Lutheran Church in Sweden cannot answer it.
Unfortunately, she is not alone.
There are many Christians who would not be sure how to answer that question. Some might equivocate as she did, attempting not to answer it at all. Some might be bold enough to say, “Well, Jesus is only one view of what God is like. Mohammed is another.” Some might say that the answer doesn’t even matter since there are so many ways to see God. These Christians might all be American Christians, too, because statistics bear out what any casual observer might deduce: the fact that someone calls himself a Christian does not mean that the person believes what Christians have historically taught as the core truths.
The Barna Group, which studies the landscape of religion in the USA, identifies 6 teachings that make up a Christian worldview:
- Absolute moral truth exists
- The Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches
- Satan is a real being, not a mere symbol
- It is not possible to earn entry to heaven by doing good works
- Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
- God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today
It is possible that some Christians would word these teachings a little differently, but 2000 years of writing about the faith would find little to dispute in this definition of a biblical worldview. The one point avoided in the way Barna speaks of a biblical worldview is a statement that Jesus was 100% human and 100% God. It is hard to imagine how someone who was not God could live a sinless life, but there are almost certainly people who would try to make that point. However, people who believe all six teachings will certainly have a distinctive outlook consistent with the Bible.
It would be easy to look at that list and observe that the new Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Sweden does not agree with it. Her statement is that theology cannot be reduced to yes and no answers to religious questions. Right away it is clear that she does not agree that absolute moral truth exists. In the culture of the US there are many people who agree with her, and a large number of those people attend American Christian churches and self-identify as Christians. This despite consistent biblical emphasis on moral absolutes. The statistics gathered in a survey in 2009 are thought-provoking.
- 66% of all adults surveyed believe there is no such thing as absolute truth
- 50% of all adults surveyed believe that the Bible is only a good myth
- 73% believe that Satan is a myth
- 72% of all adults believe that it is possible to earn entry to heaven by doing good deeds
- 60% of all adults believe that Jesus was a good man but not sinless, certainly not God
- Amazingly, only 30% of all adults doubt that God is the creator and still in charge of the universe
The problem with all these statistics is that about 75% of all adults self-identify as Christians. When all the statistics are boiled down, about 9% of adults have a biblical worldview. Among the adults who do not hold biblical worldviews, a sizable number are Christian leaders – pastors, Sunday School teachers, theology professors, and so forth.
It would be easy to laugh at the Swedes for picking a bishop who clearly does not see Jesus as 100% God and 100% human. But 90% of the people in the USA probably agree with her.
That is something to think about for the next few days.
That statement sounds like a copout to some people. Of course, Satan is behind all the restrictions and pressure to conform. Sure, he is the one who motivates even people who call themselves Christians to vote for bad leaders and bad laws. That is a real oversimplification of the difficulties we experience just trying to live our faith according the freedom the Constitution protects.
It sounds too simple to be worth thinking about, but it is exactly what we need to think about. If we think that presidents or senators or judges or laws or neighbors or foreigners or unbelievers are the problem, then we will contend with all those people. To focus our efforts on the people enslaved by Satan is like telling an unjustly imprisoned man to fix his problem by breaking out of jail. If we believe that our society will be improved if we win some legal battles or a few elections, then we are doomed to deep disappointment.
It is the elected and appointed leaders who enact and interpret and enforce laws that restrict religious liberty. It is neighbors, friends and fellow employees who make spiteful remarks about religious fanatics and militant bigotry. But these people don’t dream up all these problems by themselves. They are inspired and motivated and pressured by the most powerful evil force in the universe. Without Christ in their lives, they have no hope of resisting that power. Even people who have received Christ may be very weak in their commitment and may still be lured by satanic turns of phrase that sound ever so sophisticated and mature.
The enemy who masterminds cultural shunning and scorn, government restrictions, and outright persecution is Satan. Eve could not withstand his cunning, and people today are just as gullible. If we fight the world only by fighting fellow-citizens in street demonstrations, petition campaigns, legal proceedings, elections or on the floors of legislatures, we will never really win. In every war, there are numerous battles. Usually one side wins some contests, and the other side wins some. The death of an infantryman in a muddy foxhole may be necessary to the cause. Death and destruction mount up over time. Still, the person who must actually be defeated is the mastermind behind all the action. No matter how many men take the field in a given conflict, there are two generals whose decisions set everything in motion, and one of them must surrender or be soundly defeated. Otherwise, winners and losers scurry off with their dead and wounded, clean up, re-provision, and start over somewhere else. This is what happens when Christians engage in the battle for religious liberty without recognizing the real enemy.
The real enemy is Satan, and the only power who can defeat him in time and space is the same power who defeated him for eternity on the cross: Christ our Savior. The battle for religious liberty in the US and countries around the world is not a battle for the power of good in eternity. That battle was won when Jesus died and rose again. The competition today is against evil in the time-space realm. We battle for religious liberty primarily in order that we can rescue all the people imprisoned in the ranks of Satan’s troops. Think about it. We don’t want to be able to speak and live our testimony to Christ in order to make more money or even in order to feel good about ourselves. We do it, because Christ told us to share the good news with everyone. We cannot share the good news with those who need it if there are laws and enforcers in place to forbid us to speak our testimony.
Laws and rules and practices which restrict and constrain our ability to share the good news in word and deed must be overturned and ended, because Christ loves all the people. He loves and desires fellowship with all the people who call him a figment of a wishful imagination. Those laws were enacted by people deceived by Satan’s lies, because Satan does not want those people to follow Christ. Why do you suppose he offered to hand over the kingdoms of the world to Jesus in return for worship? Satan knew that if Christ, God in the flesh, worshiped him in order to get the kingdoms, the people would be following a Jesus who followed Satan. As long as Satan gets the people, he is not picky about who is leading the pack behind him. He will let anyone lead the pack, as long as he leads the leader.
Christians must remember that Paul warned the Ephesians not to be confused about who was their enemy. He said, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV) This is the description of our enemy as well. Before we sign petitions, plan campaigns, vote in elections, sue in court, write to our legislators and so forth, we need to call on the general of our army, the Lord Jesus Christ, and we need to get our uniforms and weapons from him. He wants us in the trenches and the fray, but he probably thinks we march best on our knees.
Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. … And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:13, 18 NIV)
Identity spirituality, which was discussed in yesterday’s post, is the ultimate religion of self. It poses as spirituality, but it takes shape as actions and words and ideas gathered together to fit an individual’s tastes. The world is full of religious and spiritual ideas, and identity spirituality simply collects the ones that feel good. This version of spirituality does not lift someone up or transform or ask for sacrifice. The practice of identity spirituality may masquerade as a stage in the evolution of human beings toward some higher form, but it is always self-satisfying and it always points to the human who invented it. What do Christians have to say to people who believe that they are their own gods?
We first must remember that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. People who want to find their own god within themselves can be reminded that Jesus truly was that person they all want to be. He really was both God and man. More than that, in his humanity he fully experienced all the trials and tribulations we experience. Pain, anger, fear, humiliation, disappointment, and so forth. We read in Mark 1:12 that “[Jesus] was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” The way Mark describes that experience is the most horrific of the three tellings. It vividly calls up an image of loneliness and that would feel like abandonment if not for the angels. It is the image many of us have actually experienced. The layoff notice. The terminal diagnosis. The end of a marriage. The child killed in an accident. The fervent dream the completely eludes any hope of fulfilling it. Almost every human being can recall some moment when he felt as if he were surrounded by rabid dogs because of a mistake or a failure that transformed former colleagues and friends into vicious enemies. It can feel like being in the wilderness with wild animals, under assault for so long it seems like a month of manic Mondays. We can share with the identity spiritualist that Christ can identify with them in the muck and the mire and the misery of being human.
The way Matthew talks about those forty days is a bit different. Matthew provides three examples of Satan’s attack. Those three examples cover the gamut of the challenge of being human, and they show us that Jesus knows exactly what it is to be human.
In the first temptation, Satan suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. It was a test many people don’t pass. The executive in the top echelons of his company’s financial controls has immense power, but Satan has lured many such individuals to divert money away from the company and into their own pockets. Individuals such as Napoleon or Marshal Petain or Fidel Castro acquire huge power by promising to serve oppressed people, but they cannot resist Satan’s temptation to serve themselves first, betraying the trust of their followers by using the power ceded to them by the people against the very people who loved them. Jesus was tempted by the possibility of making bread out of rocks. He was hungry. He wanted food. But Jesus, as fully man as he was fully God, chose not to use God’s rich power to serve himself. The behavior of Jesus is exactly opposite to the notion of choosing among all the religious options and picking the one that serves your inner self the best. Jesus chose not to serve self at all, but rather to serve God. As a completely human being, he did not do something no human can do, but he did something that is very hard for humans, no matter how clearly they see the right thing to do. We can tell an identity spiritualist that it is not only right to put self last, but it is also possible.
In the next temptation, Satan appealed to the spoiled child in everyone. We all like attention. We preen when people are admiring us and applauding our accomplishments. Satan tempted Jesus to do something so dramatic that all the world would look up and clap, scream, whistle and whoop it up. He asked Jesus to be like the grandchild at Thanksgiving who dashes around the living room full of relatives as fast as he can screaming, “See how fast I can run!” never mind that lamps and vases are falling like winter snow in every direction. He asked Jesus to be the showoff who jumps off the platform at the top of the slide instead of sliding down when it comes his turn. He asked Jesus to be the big man at work who finesses sales the company can’t possibly deliver and collects payoffs under the table in order to become the Sales Engineer of the Year. Jesus was born for the specific purpose of saving all the people of the earth. A dive off the pinnacle of the temple would certainly get people’s attention, and then he could tell all of them how to put God and other people first in their lives. Jesus rejected the temptation to call attention to himself rather than to the kingdom of God.
Finally, Satan went to the bottom line: statistics. Sales numbers. Profit. He showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. A good way to envision this sight is to think of a huge world-sized yearbook. Jesus would not likely have been swayed by a vision that looked like a globe, but a vision of individuals, especially those suffering from hunger, disease and loneliness. One image of suffering humanity after another paraded past by the author of all that suffering. And the images were coupled with a real temptation: if Jesus would simply worship Satan, Jesus could have all those people for himself. These were the people Jesus had come for. These were the ones he cared for. Would it be a bad thing just to kneel before Satan one time?
It is the same argument that might be offered up in the back seat of Dad’s Chevrolet on prom night. Don’t you want to know what it is like? What could it hurt to do it just once?
Hey, it’s not cheating if everybody is doing it. If you don’t make our report look good, then we will be the only department that doesn’t get a full budget allocation for next year.
The world is full of such opportunities, and Jesus, who said NO to this temptation, knows how much we all want the shortcuts to happiness.
How do we respond to the lure of identity spirituality? We respond with the message Jesus gave to a man whose identity was spirituality in the extreme – Nicodemus the Pharisee. Being a Pharisee was all about satisfying self while scorning other people who did not deserve to be noticed. Pharisees performed all their good deeds in public where everyone could see how religious they were. And Pharisees sold out the entire nation of Israel in order to be the only legitimately spiritual people in any room.
Jesus’ message to the Pharisee is Jesus’ answer to everyone who thinks he can be his own god. Jesus spoke of the real God, the one God, his own Father in heaven, and said,
“No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:13-17
The Temptation of Christ
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16,
Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
Today’s psalm is a great place to go for an understanding of the way Jesus survived Satan’s temptations. In this psalm is the statement Satan extracted and twisted into a temptation that Jesus rejected. The psalm is not designed as a temptation, but Satan, like many of his slaves, abused the text, eviscerating it and holding up a bloody shred to dare Jesus to show off his power in a dramatic performance rather than live up to his purpose. Jesus the Beloved Son, was sent on a rescue and recovery mission to save human beings, God’s beloved creation. He was not sent to show off and be a sacred celebrity.
The Bible says that Jesus was tempted by Satan for forty days. Only three temptations are recorded, of which one was the last of all, but they are enough to give us a good idea of the vicious, malevolent finesse with which Satan approached the One sent to defeat him forever .
We can imagine, for example, that the temptation to turn stones into bread could have come early in the forty days. A healthy person becomes hungry after only a few hours without food. Did Satan arrive about sundown that first day to taunt his archenemy? Jesus had been baptized earlier that day, and as Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit fell into him, and people heard the voice of God say, “This is my Beloved.” Satan heard those words, too.
It is easy to imagine Satan watching and waiting all day as Jesus trekked into the wilderness with neither food nor water. The path, or perhaps it would be better to say, the route Jesus followed, was dusty and rocky, lined with brambles. One gospel mentions wild animals, although they likely appeared only after dark. Did Jesus find a cave where he could rest for the night, or was he out in the open, unprotected in any way? Mark says the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, so perhaps he was weary of dealing with that pressure as day began to fade into evening.
Satan appeared. Writers and dramatists portray Satan in all sorts of guises. One novelist presented Satan as a scruffy, smelly old beggar, all in tatters, just the sort of person Jesus would approach lovingly during his ministry. Satan simply sat down beside Jesus and said, “You got anything to eat?” Jesus had nothing, but the reader knows he would later feed five thousand people with almost nothing. Jesus shook his head. In the spirit of the old maxim “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride,” the beggar says, “Well, we could pretend that stone over there is a loaf of bread.” The biblical conversation develops from that point. Satan has set the stage for not only tempting Jesus to use his power to serve self, but he has cast the scene as a pretense of exactly the sort of thing Jesus actually does later. In the novel, Jesus rejects that temptation with the words of Scripture, at which the filthy beggar takes extreme umbrage and wanders off into the night.
The novelist understands that Satan did not appear with horns, a tail and a pitchfork for his battle with Jesus. Satan never appears like that. In fact, it seems highly likely that Satan himself inspired that image for the purpose of fooling people. When temptation comes our way, it is always dressed up like things a person would actually want, not like a frightful demon. Women tempted to abort their unborn babies do not succumb to a temptation to skewer an innocent baby on a pitchfork. They succumb to a temptation to believe that God himself would not want that baby to be born. They believe that the fact that conception was sired by an irresponsible man means they should never have become pregnant in the first place; it’s his fault for refusing to use a condom. They believe that they don’t have the means to support the baby, and God himself would not want them to take on that responsibility without proper means. Maybe they even think that being pregnant at this time will interfere with their opportunity to achieve personal fulfillment in a career or with a different man or etcetera. Maybe they simply buy the notion of “a woman’s right to choose” and think of the unborn baby as an unwanted interloper in their bodies. They aren’t responding to a demon in red tights. They are responding to subtle and not-so-subtle temptations to serve self and to deny the humanity of the baby.
How was Jesus able to fend off all these temptations? He relied on Scripture. A lot of brain power has been expended in arguments about the nature and authenticity of the Bible. There are a lot of secular thinkers who respect it as literature but reject it as revelation or authority. They look at the Bible and the Baghavad Gita the same way – interesting ancient myths. Jesus helps us learn that the Bible is God’s book, and the fact that Satan tried to use it to destroy God himself is additional evidence that the Bible is powerful. Today’s psalm is a testimony to that power as experienced by one ancient poet. Satan pulled out a shred for nefarious purposes, but borrowing the novelist’s viewpoint, we might wonder if he chose that text because Jesus was actually praying this psalm as Satan showed up. It would make the use of this text even more fiendish.
Psalm 91 begins by announcing that its subject is “those who live in the shelter of the Most High.” What a beautiful image. We can imagine Jesus, parched and sunburned, laboriously battling through the underbrush of the wilderness across Jordan, focusing on the words, “in the shadow of the Almighty.”
As Jesus tried to find a comfortable place to sit in the rocky, inhospitable landscape, he had to know that Satan would come. Jesus knew that the Tempter would not, could not, let him embark on his work without a savage battle to prevent people from learning that their Savior had arrived. Young men in Jesus’ day attended synagogue schools where they learned to read and write, and where they memorized the ancient texts. Perhaps as the Evil One approached, Jesus was quietly praying the psalmist’s words as his own, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, The Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”
That would have been a perfect time for Satan to appear, whisking Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple while picking up the text of the psalm, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Did Satan dress in rabbinical robes, perhaps with the face of Jesus’ childhood teacher as he said, “Go ahead. You believe it. Prove it.” Jesus replies from Deuteronomy 6:16: “Don’t tempt me!”
Satan comes to us, not as the Enemy, but as our friend. He whispers in our ears, “You are as good as God. Don’t let him lord it over you. How dare he say ‘Thou shalt not.’ God is just an old bugaboo of people who don’t know any better. You’re too smart for that.” Satan always makes us feel really important, like he did when he offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. He offers us shortcuts to popularity and success and gratification. He constantly tells us we deserve better and we shouldn’t be treated like this. When Jesus was in the wilderness, alone and starving, driven out there by the Holy Spirit, Satan played on his knowledge that, in heaven, Jesus was honored and worshipped by angels. Why did he need to wander the earth in poverty and die a cruel death? Satan offered Jesus what he came to claim – the people of the world – and Satan made it look a lot easier than God did.
That’s the way he poses it to us. Maybe it is just a little favor for a friend in high places. Maybe it is one transaction in a million with a few extra dollars to a secret account. Maybe it is the right word in the right ear that opens the right door but now you owe somebody something. Jesus had the same ego we have. He wanted to save all the people, because that was what he came for. The night before he was crucified, he prayed to be spared that agony, if there were any other way to save the world. Here was a chance to escape the pain. It could all be avoided if he simply bowed before Satan instead of God.
Jesus saw through the sales pitch. He knew that to do this would be worshiping self, serving self, saving self, instead of saving the world. He responded, “Worship only God.”
Satan comes to each of us in a thousand different ways every day, whispering, hinting, insinuating, turning even our best impulses into opportunities to reject Christ and serve Satan. The Bible says that Christ was tempted in every way we are tempted. To fight back we need the same ammunition that worked for Jesus. In the Bible’s words, God makes the same promise to us that he made to the psalmist: “When [you] call to me, I will answer [you]; I will be with [you] in trouble.”
For timely articles about the persecuted church and about cultural and political pressure in the Christian life, read Living on Tilt the newspaper.