The Real Reason We’re Uncomfortable With Miracles

Daily Reading
Genesis 15 (Listen – 2:53)
Matthew 14 (Listen – 4:14)

Matthew 14.25
Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.

We’ve become remarkably good at explaining miracles. There are modern theories that posit the blind could have been healed with herbs transferred from Jesus’ hands. Others that propose those raised from the dead weren’t really dead, but in shock. There is even an academic paper which models the “hydrodynamic situation” of the sea parting in Exodus. “The Crossing is possible provided that a low-tide phase and a storm-induced drop in water level occur in the northern part of the Gulf of Suez.” [1]

Rather than saying miracles didn’t happen (Pew Research says nearly 80% of Americans believe they are possible) we explain how they happened via natural means. We’re comfortable with miracles so-long as God plays by our rules. 

God becomes dangerous the moment he does something we cannot do for ourselves. We’ve seen the ways in which we can manipulate our own world, create our own cures, and solve life’s problems through our own ingenuity. When a problem exceeds those limits we want to know that we’ve reached the impossible, not the realm of dependence. 

Increasing in understanding is a sign of a growing believer. The sign of a mature believer is that they don’t allow their pursuit of explanation to eclipse the realities of why God works and what he has done. Some of the Bible’s miracles might well have material explanation. God created everything; it’s no less a miracle when he orchestrates his creation for his purposes. Some of the Bible’s miracles likely don’t (or can’t) have such an explanation. Regardless of how each miracle occurred, natural or otherwise, the reason why they happened will always be supernatural. Christ’s miracles were practical expressions of God’s radical, persistent, and sacrificial love for humanity — and this is perhaps the greatest miracle.

This realization removes our facade of control. The single thing every miracle in scripture has in common is that the recipient had given up on, or exhausted, any natural way to solve their own problems or grow in their own faith. Our root problem is not the plausibility of miracles, but the in the belief that God is good. We struggle to trust that when we relinquish control to him our lives become immeasurably better as he does what we cannot do for ourselves.

Prayer
God, you demonstrated your own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5.8) Thank you for the miracle of your love. We cannot explain it, but it has changed us forever. Help us not only to understand you, but to trust you.

Miracles and Parables Among Skeptics
Part 3 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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Footnotes

[1] N. E. Voltzinger and A. A. Androsov. Modeling the Hydrodynamic Situation of the Exodus. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology (St. Petersburg Branch), Russian Academy of Sciences, 2002.

Three Reasons Jesus Spoke in Parables

Daily Reading
Genesis 14 (Listen – 4:04)
Matthew 13 (Listen – 7:23)

Matthew 13.10-11
The disciples came to [Jesus] and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.”

Jesus’ disciples were flummoxed. While this happened often to these men to whom the Messiah would entrust his church, this time we might have shared their bewilderment. Jesus came to save the lost, redeem the oppressed, and show God’s love for the world. Yet, for some reason, he concealed his message in parables. His answer to their question, that some have been given knowledge and others have not, looks disturbing (more-so when lifted from its context, as above). What was Jesus saying?

1. Jesus was responding to the religious elite’s rejection of him. The rejection of Christ, recorded in the previous chapters of Matthew, is harsh. Just prior to this encounter the religious leaders respond to one of Jesus’ miracles by calling him an agent of the devil. [1] “The die has been cast,” summarizes Pastor Stanley Toussaint. “The people of Israel are amazed at the power of Jesus and His speech, but they fail to recognize Him as their King… they have separated the fruit from the tree.” [2]

2. Parables mercifully spared the hard-hearted from rejecting Christ’s message. Instead of rejecting the religious leaders as they rejected him, Christ began speaking in parables. He delivered grace to all who would hear and gave the hard-hearted space to respond. (The Pharisees Nicodemus and Saul of Tarsus later come to faith, as does religious council member Joseph of Arimathea, and many others.)

3. What was concealed in parables was revealed on the cross and after the grave. If humankind’s primary problem was lack of knowledge then Jesus would have doubled down on his teaching so none would perish due to ignorance. Instead he went to the cross to die the death we deserved and rose from the grave to give us the life we could not have earned. We may wrestle with Christ’s teachings, but the answer we need is found in his sacrifice.

Prayer
God, thank you for your patience with those who rejected you. Apart from you our hearts are like theirs. Thank you that you walk with your rejectors, sacrifice for them, and love them so deeply you would give your life. Give us patience and fruitfulness as we respond and share your grace with those around us.

Miracles and Parables Among Skeptics
Part 2 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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Footnotes

[1] See Matthew 12.22-32. | [2] Stanley Toussaint, Behold the King. p. 168.

 

Faith Among Skeptics

Daily Reading
Genesis 13 (Listen – 2:16)
Matthew 12 (Listen – 6:41)

Matthew 12.6

[Jesus said,] I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.

“Modern philosophy has been inhospitable to the soul,” laments Alan Mittleman in the Harvard Theological Review. [1] No longer just the soul, but anything non-physical is called into question or explained as a consequence of material realities. (Love, joy, and pain are each given physical root in chemical responses.) How are we to deal with things of faith which transcend the concrete?

In some ways this isn’t just a modern problem. Timothy Keller explores a real philosophical challenge from the first century though a fictional conversation between a Roman and his Christian neighbor. Watch the disconnect between religious Roman life and Christianity, as well as the beauty of a faith which transcends the zeitgeist: 

The [Roman] neighbor says, “Oh, you’re a Christian. That’s great. I love religion, all the pageantry. That’s really wonderful. Where is your temple? 

The Christian would’ve said, “We don’t have a temple. Jesus is our temple. He has fulfilled it. He’s the final temple. We don’t need temples anymore.”

The neighbor would say, “Well, you have no temple? Where do your priests operate?

“We don’t have any priests. Jesus is our Priest. He’s the final Priest. He has put priests out of business. We don’t need any mediator. He’s the Mediator.”

“No temple? No priests? Where do you do your rituals, the things that make you acceptable to God?

“Jesus is our sacrifice, so we don’t have any more sacrifices.”

Finally, the neighbor says, “What kind of religion is this?” 

The Christian would say, “It’s no kind of religion at all, because we didn’t get a religion; we got a person. We don’t have a God so high up there we need a religion to sort of get in connection with him. ‘Come in, God. Come in.’ He came to us. He died for us. He came into our midst, and now we don’t have a religion. We have a person.”

Prayer
God we are so thankful we’re not called to earn you, but called to know you. We acknowledge that your ways are beyond ours. Give us faith to trust and knowledge to understand. We want to know you. We want to be articulate about who you are — sometimes in conditions hostile to things of faith and spirituality. Give us grace, boldness, and wisdom as we have opportunity to share who you are and what you’ve done for us.

Miracles and Parables Among Skeptics
Part 1 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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Footnotes

[1]  Alan Mittleman (2014). Making the Case for the Soul in an Age of Neuroscience. Harvard Theological Review, 107, pp 485-493. | [2] Keller, T. J. The Lord of the Sabbath. The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2006.

Go and Learn

Daily Reading
Genesis 9-10 (Listen – 7:19)
Matthew 9 (Listen – 4:56)
*We’re reading and listening to the NIV this year. See why.

Matthew 9.13
[Jesus said,] “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The Pharisees were liberal in their view of who could have God’s presence, says Hebrew University Historian Daniel Schwartz. [1] There was no debate among Jewish scholars in Jesus’ day that Israel had broken God’s covenant with them. The key question of their time was how the covenant could be restored — and the answer extended from theology into the reality of everyday life.

The Sadducees believed God’s presence could only reside in a certain kind of person: those born of the proper lineage and actively participating in Temple life in Jerusalem. This was a significant problem for most ancient Jews as they were spread throughout the Near East. Moving was almost always an unthinkable risk since land was life in an agrarian society. The Pharisees grew in power because they offered Jews outside of Jerusalem an alternative. In short, they believed keeping the law was the way a person’s standing with God was restored. They were fastidious about the law because it was their only hope.

The Pharisees and Sadducees each crafted a way for a person to restore their relationship with God through their own volition. The Sadducees wanted people to give up on their cities, neighborhoods, and vocations, believing God’s plan was limited to a particular culture and place. The Pharisees looked at their Scriptures like a rulebook, missing—in Jesus’ opinion—the entire point of the Scriptures.

“Go and learn” is a rabbinic phrase which means the hearer has missed something in the Scriptures and needs to study with greater attention. Jesus wasn’t a sage who commanded his followers to study the laws and do their best to conduct flawless lives. Any prophet could have done that. Jesus’ foundational claim was that he was the Son of God who came to extend God’s mercy to the world. Restoration was possible through him.

Prayer

Thank you, Father, for extending your mercy to us. Thank you that your love isn’t limited to those who obey best, or are born to the right family, or live in a particular culture. Guide us to read Scripture in such a way that leads us to be dependent on you and not on our own strength. Help us to extend your mercy to those around us in ways that lead them to you. 

This Week: Anger and Forgiveness, Miracles and Mercy
Part 5 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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Weekend Readings

Saturday: Genesis 11 (Listen – 3:47); Matthew 10 (Listen – 5:07)
Sunday: Genesis 12 (Listen – 2:50); Matthew 11 (Listen – 4:06)

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Footnotes

[1] See Daniel Schwartz’ discussion on requirements for God’s presence inside Jewish Movements of the New Testament Period in The Jewish Annotated Study Bible, pp.526-530. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health

Highlighted Text: 2 Cor. 13:5
Full Text: Prov. 1, 2 Cor. 13

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. [1]

How do doctors diagnose physical health? They ask questions, e.g., Have you experienced any breathing difficulties? In his short book, “Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health” [2], Don Whitney suggests doing the same:

  • Do you thirst for God? Jonathan Edwards wrote, “So holy desire, exercised in longings, hungerings, and thirstings after God and holiness, is often mentioned in Scripture as an important part of true religion.” [3]
  • Are you governed increasingly by God’s Word? Thomas Chalmers wrote, “The sum and substance of the preparation needed for a coming eternity is that you believe what the Bible tells you and do what the Bible bids you.” [4]
  • Are you more loving? Martin Luther wrote, “The more a person loves, the closer he approaches the image of God.” [5]
  • Are you more sensitive to God’s presence? A.W. Pink wrote, “If the soul of the believer is in a healthy condition, he will take occasion to frequently come into God’s presence on purpose to have communion with Him.” [6]
  • Do you have a growing concern for the spiritual and temporal needs of others? John Calvin said, “There is nothing in which men resemble God more truly than in doing good to others.” [7]
  • Do you delight in the bride of Christ? Peter Jeffrey wrote, “The closer you are to the Lord, the closer you will be to other believers.” [8]
  • Are the spiritual disciplines increasingly important to you? Peter Jeffrey wrote, “Without a disciplined life, you will stagnate as a Christian.” [9]
  • Do you still grieve over sin? J.C. Ryle wrote, “I am convinced that the first step towards attaining a higher standard of holiness is to realize more fully the amazing sinfulness of sin.” [10]
  • Are you a quick forgiver? James Coulter wrote, “The unforgiving spirit … is the number one killer of spiritual life.” [11]
  • Do you yearn for heaven and to be with Jesus? C.H. Spurgeon said, “You may judge of a man by what he groans after.” [12]

Lord, We long for life in you and, therefore, we must have health and growth. Let us test ourselves, as we seek your face in our quiet times alone with you and in our community. Lift our eyes to Jesus, as we press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in him. Amen.

[Note: Supporting Scripture references for each question are found in the footnotes.]

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Footnotes

[1] 2 Cor. 13:5 ESV.  |  [2] Donald S. Whitney. Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health. I love his questions because they focus on the state of the heart toward God (which is the goal) and see Christian obedience and the practice of Christian disciplines (which are the means) as evidence of the state of the heart. Also, in each chapter, he expands on these questions and offers “practical steps” for growing in each of these areas.  |  [3] Do you thirst for God? See, e.g., Ps. 42; Ps. 63; Phil. 3:1-11. (Tons more in the chapter.)  |  [4] Are you governed increasingly by God’s Word? See, e.g., Ps. 119; 1 Ptr. 2:2; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Thes. 2:10. (Tons more in the chapter.)  |  [5] Are you more loving? See, e.g., Jn. 15:12; Jn 15:17; Rom. 12:10; Rom. 13:8; 1 Cor. 16:14; Gal. 5:14; Eph. 5:2; 1 Thes. 4:9. (Tons more in the chapter.)  |  [6] Are you more sensitive to God’s presence? See, e.g., Gen. 28:16 (when Jacob didn’t recognize God’s presence); Matt. 28:20; Ps. 139:5-12; Matt. 1:23; Acts 11:21; Matt. 18:10; Rev. 21:3. (Tons more in the chapter.) Also, I love this chapter because it talks about times when we go through the desert and how those increase our later senses of His presence.  |  [7] Do you have a growing concern for the spiritual and temporal needs of others? See, e.g., Acts 4:33-34; Gal. 2:10; Jms 2:15-16; Jn. 10:10; Jn. 13:1-17. (Tons more in the chapter.)  |  [8] Do you delight in the bride of Christ? See, e.g., Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Jn. 3:14; Ps. 16:3. (Tons more in the chapter.) (Note: Delighting in “our friends who are in the church” is not the same as delighting “in the church.” In New York, I have found that it is so easy only to spend time with those I already like and am drawn to. Yet the church is filled with all kinds of people. Do I delight in the church? This is the goal; my, how far I have to go!  |  [9] Are the spiritual disciplines increasingly important to you? See, e.g., Heb. 12:14; 1 Tim. 4:7; Mark 1:35. (Tons more in the chapter.) He also asks, “What are the spiritual disciplines?” and “What are the dangers of the spiritual disciplines?” – two important questions.  |  [10] Do you still grieve over sin? See, e.g., 1 Ptr. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:15; 2 Cor. 7:8-11. (Tons more in the chapter.) He also provides wonderful examples of great saints in more “modern” times (Edwards, etc.).  |  [11] Are you a quick forgiver? See, e.g., Mark 11:25-26; 2 Cor. 5:17. (Tons more in the chapter.)  |  [12] Do you yearn for heaven and to be with Jesus? See, e.g., Rom. 8:22-23; 2 Cor. 5:2. (Tons more in the chapter.)  |  [13] For those who read our 843 Acres in Google Reader, please disregard the accidental version of this post that was published yesterday.

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