What is the Good News? (Part 1)

Quick, off the top of your head, without thinking about it too hard:

What is the Good News?

The Good News. The message that you and I, as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, are supposed to be carrying to the world. What is it, exactly?

Most of us have to think about this before answering, and even after thinking we’re not comfortable with our answer. “Jesus died for our sins, and saved us from eternal destruction.” But there’s more, isn’t there? “Jesus established the Kingdom of God on Earth.” “God reconciled us to Himself through the work of Jesus, the Messiah, and now we can live in His presence.” “God became a man, lived among us, died for us, ascended into heaven, and gave us the Holy Spirit.” Each of those is correct in some ways, and each is incomplete in more ways.

It feels like something is badly wrong with us if we can’t answer easily. But we all squirm a little trying to state, briefly and clearly, what the message is that we’re supposed to be carrying.

Because this is the work of God that we’re talking about, it’s not a surprise that it defies quick summation. God’s works are complex, and they go deeper and further than any human being can grasp. I actually expect that the Good News, stated properly, will be like a brilliant-cut diamond: it will look beautiful from any angle, but every time we look at it we’ll see a different side of it. And that’s fine; it’s alright if we don’t have a pat answer to “What’s God’s big plan?” But we should have an answer, even if we know it’s only partial.

So for the next couple of weeks I’m going to be examining one of the short presentations of the Good News that appears in the scriptures: the first presentation to the Gentiles. Peter delivered it before a group at the home of a centurion named Cornelius in Acts 10. I think we’ll see a few things that don’t usually get included in our presentations of the Gospel. That’s good; it will give us new things to chew on, which is one of the ways we grow.

The message Peter preached (Acts 10:34-43) can be summarized this way:

God accepts any person who fears Him and does what is right. God sent Jesus to do good and to heal those oppressed by the devil, as the prophets foretold. He was crucified, but we are witnesses that God raised Him from the dead. He sent us to preach that the risen Jesus was appointed to be the judge of all humanity, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of their sins–that is, He’ll judge them kindly.

Now, into the details:

“So Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.'” (Acts 10:34-35)

Right off the bat, we’re looking at something that not only gets omitted from most of our brief summaries of the gospel, but something that might contradict what most of us have been taught. Protestant theology makes a point of declaring that every one of us deserves hell, and that God is gracious even to consider rescuing us from sure destruction that we have earned.

But Peter said nothing of that sort. He was addressing a different question, namely why God had revealed Himself to the Jews but not to the Gentiles. He had already been told in a vision that God was embracing the Gentiles (see Acts 10:9-33). He was seeing before his face what that vision meant.

And so Peter began by telling the Gentiles about God’s judgment. He might not have had to say that in front of a Jewish audience, since Jews were taught about God’s judgment from their childhood; but before the Gentiles, Peter took the time to say that God will judge everyone, and that what He is looking for is people who (1) fear Him, and (2) do what is right. That’s the goal, and we should never forget it.

The Apostle Paul says the same thing. Paul’s gospel message appeared in Romans 1-8, and to begin it, he established first that men had wandered away from God and fallen into sin (Romans 1:18-32), and then explained that simply being Jewish was not enough to please God, because God will judge all men equitably. He will accept anybody who fears Him and does right, and punish anyone who does not, according to Paul:

“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Romans 2:6-8)

He went on to say that all men sin, which every Jew would have understood to be so. But it turns out that the thing we’ve been taught to say, that all human beings deserve hell and would end up there if it were not for the Messiah, was not part of their message, and in fact appears nowhere in the scriptures. Jews like Paul and Peter believed that some would be judged wicked but that some others would be judged righteous.

So, the first point in the gospel message, from both Peter and Paul, is this: Our goal is to fear God and do right. God will judge everyone by that standard and reward us according to our works, regardless of who we are.

(For anyone who is afraid already that I’ve gone off the rails, let me observe that while the Apostles never say “Everybody deserves hell” (which is a Reformation inference, not a quote from the Bible), they do say that everybody has sins that need forgiving. That’s not the same thing, but it is true that all of us need the Messiah. I’ll be discussing this next week.)

Next in Peter’s presentation:

“As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.” (Acts 10:36-39a)

The Anglican Bishop NT Wright, in his outstanding book “How God Became King: the Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” pointed out that even our central creeds, the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, omit any mention of Jesus’ earthly ministry; they leap directly from Jesus’ miraculous birth to His passion under Pontius Pilate. So do most of us when we present the gospel. Isn’t that odd? We leave out any mention of Jesus’ life, because we don’t know how it’s relevant. (Wright spent the bulk of his book explaining how it’s relevant, and it’s mind-blowing. You should read it.)

But Peter here, as he did in his presentation on the day of Pentecost, focused on Jesus’ good works among the people in Judea and Galilee. These works were consistent with the predictions of the prophets, who identified Jesus’ works of power with “good news,” and also with “the favorable day of the Lord,” the Jubilee (see Isaiah 61). Peter echoed the prophets, calling Jesus’ message “Good news of peace,” a reference to Isaiah 52:7. Jesus, Himself, used Isaiah 61 to describe His ministry to the people of Nazareth.

The power of God to deliver people from demonic bondage, sickness, poverty, and misery is very much part of what made Jesus’ appearance “good news,” and it should be part of our presentation as well.

Corresponding to that, our obedience to the Messiah should also produce those things for us and for others–or the Good News is a lie. If you’re one of those Christians for whom Christianity has not produced that sort of deliverance, please seek help from somebody who has experienced it. There’s more available, and you need it. Don’t quit; seek God. He will comfort you, and you will see His face. Sometimes He takes the long route, but He always arrives.

I’ve already flown past my 1,000-word limit, and I’m only halfway home. So next time I’ll finish Peter’s presentation of the gospel. But we’ve already seen two parts of it that don’t usually get mentioned, haven’t we? Interesting.

Ponder the good news–which really is good news–and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to finish the job. God bless you all. Enjoy the summer.

Phil’s Proverbs

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Somebody on Quora asked me what my personal morals were for 2019, and the question intrigued me. Naturally, my personal morals are the same for 2019 as they were for 2018, 2017, 2005, 1994, and so forth. They don’t change much. Morality is universal; it arises from the character of God, which fills our universe and all universes. I just add things as I learn them, but they’re things that should have been on the list all along.

I was actually reflecting on this a few weeks ago. I’ve been walking with God for 46 years, and after all that time and all I’ve experienced, what it’s come down to is this: God expects only two things from us. The whole exercise is “Love God, and don’t be a jerk.” That’s it. There really isn’t anything else that we have to do. 

Of course, I’ve just stated in my own words the same thing that Jesus said about the greatest commands: Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (see Luke 10:25-28 and Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus echoed the words of a great Rabbi named Hillel who said, “All the rest of the laws simply explain this. Go and learn them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a.)

Just so you know: the two commands originate in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. 

However, I thought it would be useful to spell out some of the explanatory details of “Don’t be a jerk,” since that’s not very specific. Also, seeing my list might help you all reflect on your own lists of important dos and don’ts, which are worth examining from time to time. I wouldn’t mind hearing from some of you regarding what you might add or take away from this list. Please feel free to send me email at philweingart@disciples.com. 

So here it is: my personal moral precepts for 2019 (and 2005 and 1993, etc.) with some additional bits of wisdom for living added on. Enjoy.

(1) Don’t murder. Also, try not to hate anybody, as this leads to wanting to beat them up, which in turn leads to murder. Ask for help when you encounter people whom you really detest, even if you have good reasons to detest them.

(2) Don’t commit adultery. Also, try not to lust after anybody, as this leads to flirting, which leads to adultery. Other people are not just bodies, and their bodies are not your playground. They’re people. Treat them with respect.

(3) Don’t steal. Also, don’t covet what other people have, so you’ll never be tempted to steal. And be responsible with spending, so you won’t get into financial trouble and be tempted to steal. Be content with what you have until you’re actually able to have more.

(4) Don’t lie, shade the truth, or obscure the truth by weasel-words, ESPECIALLY when talking to yourself. Make every effort to speak the unvarnished truth, even if it’s embarrassing and reveals personal weakness. (This does not excuse unkind truths to vulnerable people; you can avoid the truth for them, if necessary. Sometimes kindness should trump truthfulness.)

(5) Keep your commitments. If you said you’d pay, pay. If you said you’d attend, attend. If you said you’d forsake all others, forsake all others. And if you can’t deliver, don’t pretend like you can; don’t make commitments you can’t keep. 

(6) Be generous with the good things God gave you. They’re not just for you, they’re for everybody. That includes all your abilities and time as well as your material goods.

(7) Be considerate of the needs of others in every situation. Your own desires are not the universal good; in this world, a lot of people have to share the same space, which is easier if we aim at taking care of each other instead of just feeding our own faces.

(8) Let people be who they are, even if they’re broken somehow. Everybody has a tough life. You can suggest improvements but people don’t usually appreciate such suggestions; be sparing with advice. You can help them change if they ask for help to change.

(9) While you’re letting people be who they are, don’t control or manipulate them. Manipulation is cruel, and it’s arrogant, too. You’re not God. You have no right to control others.

(10) In fact, don’t ever be cruel, try to be kind—to humans first, but also to animals.

(11) Leave judging peoples’ final destinations to God. Be grateful that it’s not your decision. 

(12) Examine first the ways that you caused the problem (whatever the problem is). That’s where you’ll find things that you can actually change. Only consider what others have done to cause the problem afterward, if at all.

(13) If you’re flopping back and forth between “is this right, or is it wrong?”, it’s wrong, and you know it. Every time. So don’t do it.

(14) Never stop learning. Seek out knowledge.

(15) Ask for help when you need help. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s stupid not to.

(16) Nobody on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time at the office. Everybody wishes they’d spent more time loving people who were important to them. Take a lesson. 

And finally,

(17) There’s nothing wrong with doing things to benefit yourself. Just balance that with all the other stuff in this list. We all have to live.

There ya go. I’m looking forward to hearing what else you all put on your lists.

Go love God and love people, and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the stuff I actually intended to write this week.

When Sinners Act Like Sinners

We have such great expectations for church, but people get hurt so often! What’s wrong with the Church?

Brother Lawrence, a layman who cooked for the Carmelite monastery in Paris during the late 17th century, wrote one of the great mystical books of Christendom called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” In it, he observes that he is never surprised when a sinner acts like a sinner.

He was talking about people who did not believe the Christ, and who were still completely in their sins. But the truth is, even those of us who do believe in Christ still manifest our wicked nature sometimes. When we’re together in churches, we’re in a room full of other people who, like us, manifest their wicked natures sometimes. Some of them don’t even recognize their actions as wicked.

The secret to surviving hurt in the church is simply to remember that every one of us is a sinner in recovery. It is no surprise that in a church full of recovering sinners, sometimes we get hurt, and sometimes we hurt others despite our best efforts not to. That’s actually to be expected.

What’s great about the church is that God is there to help us pick up the pieces, resolve the hurt, and do better next time. In fact, He’s still there even if we flub the recovery. We might get offended and run off to another church. That’s silly, because we’re carrying at least part of the problem with us when we go. But God’s there at the new place, and He does not abandon the project of reforming our character just because we stupidly ran off.

The remarkable thing is that sometimes, we or our church-mates do genuinely good things by the Holy Spirit. When that happens, the world becomes a vastly better place for somebody. That makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

Do not expect the Church to be sin-free. You’re in it, and so am I, so we know it cannot be sin-free. But let’s devote ourselves to creating more instances where the Holy Spirit has directed our actions and produced life.

Books That Every Christian Ought to Read

I was asked elsewhere to recommend books for young Christians wanting to round out their Christian education. I made a list, and am reproducing it here. It’s heavy on Christian experience and light on systematic theology, but that’s me. If you want recommendations for learning systematic theology, you’ll have to ask guys who take systematic theology more seriously than I do.

Books that every Christian ought to read at some point, in no particular order:

  • Mere Christianity, CS Lewis
  • Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
  • The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence
  • Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby
  • Knowing God, JI Packer
  • The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges
  • The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer
  • Eternity In Their Hearts, Don Richardson
  • The Pursuit of God, AW Tozer
  • The Pilgrims Progress, John Bunyan
  • The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • The Great Divorce, CS Lewis
  • Confessions, St. Augustine
  • The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis
  • My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers
  • With Christ in the School of Prayer, Andrew Murray
  • The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis

I have read pieces of all of these, though there are some I have not finished.

A few notes:

You can actually read most any of Francis Schaeffer’s books and get more or less the same education. Elsewhere I recommended “The Church at the End of the 20th Century,” which is a less well-known title of Schaeffer’s, and “How Should We Then Live,” which is actually a book full of plates to accompany a film strip and lecture. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. “How Should We Then Live” has the added benefit of being a birds-eye survey of the history of Western culture.

“The Practice of the Presence of God,” by Brother Lawrence, is written in 16th century French. It matters very much which translation you buy. Pick up the copy you’re looking at and read several pages. If it sounds simple and a little repetitive, you’ve got a good one. If it sounds thick and complicated, put it down and find a better translation. The one I use is from Whitaker House; it’s an abridgement, but the English is clear and simple.

Some people say “Peace Child” instead of “Eternity In Their Hearts” for Don Richardson. There is nothing wrong with “Peace Child,” but I don’t agree; “Eternity” says things about missions that people need to know. Also, some people add “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” by Elizabeth Elliot. I won’t argue with that. You can get “Splendor” as a documentary film. You can also get the dramatized film “The End of the Spear,” which is outstanding and tells the same story. “Peace Child” is also available as a dramatized film. It’s all good.

A lot of people recommend “The City of God” by Augustine, instead of “Confessions.” “Confessions” is personal, “The City of God” is theological. “City” is also huge, which is why I haven’t read it, but it is reflected everywhere in Christian theology.

A number of these can be found for free download on the Internet, as they are in the public domain. Familiarize yourself with CCEL, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. It’s a gold mine.

What’s So Good About the Good News?

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.”

Isaiah 61:1-3

Jesus heard from the Father that he was His Messiah when he got baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptist. Then he knocked around for a few weeks, performing a few early miracles. And then, driven by a desire to know exactly what a Son of God was supposed to do, he spent 40 days fasting in a lonely place and praying. And after he returned from that period of prayer and testing, he walked into a synagogue in Galilee, took the initiative to read the haftorah portion of the week*, and read the passage at the top of this post. “Today,” he told them, “this is fulfilled in your hearing.” (See Luke 4:14-21)

When Jesus was first asked to declare the good news, full of the Holy Spirit and after seeking God earnestly, that’s what he said. So if we want to understand the good news, we need to pay attention to how he described it.

When Jesus is fully present and we have received goodness from his hand:

  • Broken hearts are healed
  • Captives are liberated
  • Prisoners are freed
  • People who have been waiting for God’s favor, receive it
  • People who have been waiting for God to execute vengeance for them, see it
  • Those who have been mourning rejoice instead
  • They wear garlands instead of ashes
  • Where they used to faint, now they praise

Short version, the good news is that whatever is wrong in the absence of God, gets fixed in His presence.

Now, that’s good news — if it’s true.

And it’s true, but a lot of us have yet to experience it in full. God’s work is seldom instantaneous, it unfolds over time. This is why it is important to persevere in God — because those who wait on the Lord always eventually receive what has been promised. But sometimes it takes Him a while to bring us to the place where we can receive from Him what He wants to give us.

We get only as much of God as we are willing to expose of ourselves to Him. Most of the time we are not ready to draw close to God. We keep ourselves aloof from Him, afraid of what He might demand of us if we get too close. We busy ourselves with distractions and imagine that we already have everything that’s available. Meanwhile, the solution to every need of ours is in Him, and He will make it available to us if we will only draw close to receive it. The absence of an answer is never because God does not want us to have it; it’s always because we’re far away from Him. His will is always “Yes.”

I explain this in more detail in the sermon entitled “The Eternal Yes,” on the sermons page. Give it a listen.

You may be thinking “this is the prosperity gospel,” and that it is too good to be true. You’d be half right. I’m not saying that God wants us all to be as rich as Donald Trump and live in huge houses, but I am saying that whatever we need is available in Him, in proportion to how deeply we are willing to surrender to Him. And yes, it is too good to be true. But it’s true nonetheless.

Just because few of us have drawn close enough to God to receive as much of Him as is available, does not mean it’s not available. It means we have been content with sub-normal Christianity. There’s no virtue in that.

He who did not spare His own son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, give us all things? (Rom 8:32) If your experience of God has not been like that, you are missing things that are yours by inheritance. Setting right whatever has been wrong is the good news. It is God’s nature to heal what is broken. It is always — always — His will to do so.

Never doubt the goodness of God. Never doubt His will to do good… to you. Instead, set yourself to draw close to God persistently, expecting that the closer you get to Him, the more of His goodness (as well as His truth, His correction, and His cleansing) will be yours.

*Normal synagogue practice would call for a reading from the Torah, followed by a reading from the prophets. The second reading is called the haftorah portion. Any Jewish male who has received bar mitzvah is qualified to read either of these portions. Apparently visitors were invited to speak to the gathering and sometimes to read the haftorah, since both Jesus (Luke 4:16-17) and Paul (Acts 13:14-15) took advantage of this practice.

Exposing Ourselves to God

It was not God who dove into the bushes to hide when the humans sinned in Eden, it was Man. God does not hide Himself from us; we hide ourselves from Him.

If you ever wonder why God does not show up at your meetings, wonder no longer. It’s not God who fails to show up, it’s us. He’s always willing to draw close to us; it is we who are unwilling to draw close to Him.

This is why God said things to Israel like “Return to Me, and I will return to you,” (Malachi 3:7). He’s not saying “You first.” He’s saying “I’ve already done my part, so if you want to see Me, you have to change.”

This is also why the Psalmist says “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth.” (Psalm 145:18) We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re cleaner than we are, but God is never fooled. Before we’ve been completely honest with God about the stuff that’s going on inside us, He’s going to seem far away. But if we tell Him exactly what’s going on, He’ll be near to help us. That’s not by His choice, but ours.

So the writer of Hebrews encourages us,

…let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful…

Heb 10:22-23

So the real question is, “In what ways am I unwilling to see God today?” If we ask that, He will answer, and will help us alter whatever it is we’re using to block Him out from some part of our lives. And the closer we get to Him, the more life we get from Him. All good things are available from the Father, if we just draw close enough to get them.

Come further up, and further in!

Why I’m Here

Western civilization is coming unzipped.

Christianity built the West. It was Christ who gave us reason. It was Christ who gave us the sciences and the arts. It was Christ who gave us contract law and free markets. It was Christ who gave us universal literacy and individual rights.

And now we are in the fists of a demented ideology that appears to have been formulated in hell to unzip Western civilization and replace it with a Tyranny of the Self-Deluded. Those least worthy of leading think themselves so superior to the rest of us that they confer on themselves the right to tell us all how to live. They are unmaking civilization and replacing it with their delusions.

I devoted a few years to blogging in an attempt to address this through politics. It was satisfying for a while and good therapy, but politics does not hold the answer. At the root of all the good in our civilization, stands Christ. At the root of the deterioration, we have rejected Christ.

So, I have devoted myself to teaching Christian religion to those who want to learn it. My goal is to rebuild the foundation, so that when the edifice of the West crumbles into dust, as it is already well on its way to doing, there will be something of value on which to start rebuilding.

Welcome to the school of Christ, where the Truth will make you free.

He’s Greater Than You Know