False teachers: a bad road to a bad end

Few individuals set out to be heretics.

But there are those individuals who believe the devil when he says they will get money, power, cars, houses, sex, bestsellers, huge crowds, lasting fame.

“Just give your doctrine a bit of a twist,” he whispers, “and in exchange for a few tiny drops of falsehood you’ll get a whole lot of goodies!”

Thus the father of lies dupes people in two ways: by fabricating corrosive false teaching; by roping in the gullible to hawk it.

He’s a con artist on both counts, and finds it jolly to eventually let “his preachers” hang on their own rope, choking on disgrace, recrimination, back-peddling, exposure, lawsuits, divorce, accusations, addiction, disease. And then the hard stuff: divine judgment. And the Evil One chuckles.

Says John Chrysostom, on Philippians 1: “Nothing is more villainous than the Devil. This is how he everywhere pulls people in to work on his worthless jobs, and then tears them apart. So not only does he deny them a reward, he goes so far as to set them up for punishment!”

Don't be a victim!

Don’t be a victim!

“False teachers: a bad road to a bad end,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem

Last week I visited Yad Vashem, the memorial to the more than 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. I invite the reader to visit their website yadvashem.org, and to study indepth the enormity of the Holocaust, which I cannot begin to describe in this short space.

Our wonderful guide, Dani, told about how his maternal grandmother, Dora, singlehandedly arranged for her whole family to flee the Nazis to Palestine; only one sister remained behind, and she perished in the death camps.

Dani also reminded us that it’s easy to fantasize that we would have done right by the Jews, “if only we had been in Europe in the ’40s.”

The main hall at Yad Vashem

Not so, apparently! Out of the millions of Europeans livin at the time, only a relatively handful are on Yad Vashem’s roll of honor (The Righteous Among the Nations, which includes Oskar Schindler, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom) for those who protected Jews. Then as now, the vast majority of people don’t want to get involved, especially at the expense of their own careers, families, and even lives.

We also don’t remember that many Christians abhorred the Jews back in the day, even before the Nazi propaganda came along. So defending Jews was thought by many to be shielding God’s particular enemies from their just deserts, just as some assert today.

Beware the “moral equivalence fallacy” of ranking every inconvenience or difficulty we face as “just like the Holocaust.” Still, one of several takeaways for me, one way to live out the lesson of Yad Vashem is to stand by groups that are unpopular today. Jews, to be sure – especially with rising antisemitism in the US, and the new popularity of Holocaust Denial and the naive acceptance of that old forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion – but also other marginalized groups. Just this past week in Portland, decent people defended two young Muslim women; two of those heroes were knifed to death, and the third nearly died. Some Muslims in Oslo have stood up for Jews; some Christians try to defend gays against violence; some atheists, although in a very backhanded way, defend the Christian Asia Bibi, as have a libertarian senator and a Democratic one; etc. I bring up these specific examples, since my readers are Christians, and thus atheists, gays, Democrats, and Muslims are typically part of the “Other” – just as Jews were the Other in 20th century Europe and often are today.

Jesus was probably referencing this well-known inn in his parable of the Good Samaritan

On my trip to Jerusalem, we also passed by the inn that is thought to be the inspiration for the parable of the Good Samaritan, who took the mugging victim to the way station between Jericho and Jerusalem – “Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” (Luke 10:34). According to the Lord’s teaching, the story is about giving justice and mercy to those who we feel lie outside of God’s people. By showing mercy, the Samaritan was not rejecting Samaritanism nor affirming the superiority of Judaism; he was simply trying to embody God’s loving care.

If we risk ourselves only for those we recognize as God’s people,
we may be good guys,
but we are not Good Samaritans.

PS. Well, I guess I should have seen it coming: someone just wrote in, anonymously, to inform me that the Holocaust is a “myth” concocted by those awful lying Jews, so that people would feel sorry for them. The evidence he or she gives: that uber-crackpot Stephen Anderson of Tempe, AZ, has a YouTube video that says so! (Btw, in my experience, it’s never a good sign when someone begins a video by saying, “Now, I’m not a racist! I swear I don’t have a racist bone in my body! However…”)

Look up the Yad Vashem website. Six million Jewish dead is not some phony number that people invented. There is an actual list, containing millions of names of Jews who were annihilated, often with their ages, relatives, home towns, etc. Facts, people, lets deal in facts, not the “it-seems-to-me-ism” and sub-amateur sleuthing that is so fashionable in our age of social media.

“Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem,” by Gary S. Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Holy books, wholly understandable

I try, every year, to read the scripture of some other faith. That is, read the books themselves, not just a second-hand analysis of them

In 2016 it was the Koran, which I found well worth the read, if a little repetitious. It is about 4/5 the length of the New Testament.

In 2017 I have read the Bhaghavad Gita, which is a substantially shorter book. And I have just started the Book of Mormon, which is twice as long as the New Testament.

The two books I did as Audible recordings, of which I am a major fan, the Book of Mormon on LibriVox.

My observation here has to do with clear communication:

The Koran I read was the Penguin edition (1956) by N. J. Dawood; it is meant for non-specialists and was very understandable. Click HERE.

The Bhaghavad Gita I accessed two ways; first through then through the wonderful introduction and translation by Eknath Easwaran. And much, but not all, of the 2000-page commentary by Swami Ramsukhdasji, a gift from a dear Hindu friend.

Especially in the case of the Eknath Easwaran edition (click HERE), the rendering is very clear, with technical terms carefully explained; and then before each chapter, the author sums up the previous context, then gives a summary of the new chapter. In other words, it couldn’t be easier for the non-Hindu.

Foment curiosity and independent thinking? Sure! Create confusion? No!

All to say that, in both cases, someone exerted a great deal of effort to make clear to me the basic message of the holy books of another faith. In neither book was I ever lost, although of course my understanding of them remains superficial.

The application for the Christian should be clear.

How much more should someone who is interested in communicating our true message take great pains to

  • study it seriously,
  • meditate on it deeply,
  • pray about it thoroughly,
  • rely on God’s grace to live it authentically, and
  • seek God’s direction to proclaim it truthfully and powerfully.

Also, I would add, use straightforward language instead of flowery or technical; and to employ good English – rather than Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Bohairic, or who knows what. (See my long article on this issue HERE). To give Paul’s statement a different but legitimate application: “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” And out of the church, even more so.

These versions of holy books remind me of our dear late professor, I. Howard Marshall; the first sermon I heard him preach, in Kings College Chapel in Aberdeen, was on the theme of “repentance” from Romans 2: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” He was speaking to a mixed group, some of whom were not very familiar with the Bible. I paraphrase him: “Repentance is not making ourselves out to be the worst person that ever lived,” he began, and then gave us a simple short sentence on what it does mean to repent. Clear as a bell. The handful of times I went to hear John Stott preach, same thing.

That is the apostolic way, it is the way of love.

“Holy books, wholly understandable,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Your politics is not Christianity

No matter what you think; no matter what your favorite pundit tells you; no matter what the majority of your friends believe; no matter if you are Right, Left, Center, or Other:
Any word you can tack “ism” to the end of is a potential idol. Anytime you add a hyphen to the word “Christian” (Christian-hyphen-whatever, or Christian-slash-Whatever) you nibble away from the significance of “Christian.”

Whether election season or not, this wonderful insight from Thomas Merton remains relevant:

…on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the “opium of the people.” And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system – when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandist, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate…his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith in his own nation, class or race. His ethic ceases to be the law of God and of love, and becomes the law that might-makes-right: established privilege justifies everything, [his] God is the status quo.

Taken from Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, available cheap, used or on Kindle. Merton was, by the way, strongly in favor of political activism, as am I; but not religion as the appendage of a political ideology.

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“Eye has not seen” – or has it? [Studies in 1 Corinthians]

What does it mean when Paul (quoting Isaiah) says “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived, the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor 2:9)? Is this a parallel to, for example, 1 Cor 13:12, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then [at Christ’s coming] we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”? Is he speaking about the unimaginable glories of the life to come?

In fact, this is one of those passages that loses some of its mystery, once it is read in its context:

 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—
10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.

First, we begin with 2:6-8. One reading of “the rulers of this age” is that Paul is referring to the invisible demonic principalities and powers that ultimately sought to destroy Jesus, including the devil, who pushed Judas to betray him (John 3:2). Although that opinion is plausible, the other viewpoint fits better in this context: Paul is referring to the human rulers who arranged the crucifixion, that is, the Jewish priests, Herod Antipas, and Pilate. Paul’s other use of this word in the plural definitely refers to human rulers (Rom 13:3; also Acts 3:17, 13:27)…The tension here lies between the gospel and human wisdom, the sort that a Pilate or a Caiaphas might claim to have.

Second, the reference to “no eye, no ear no mind” in the Isaiah quotation in 2:9 fits better with a reference to human beings. Paul’s point then is that, Human power structures are passing away; so why look to them for insight into God’s truth? They would not have crucified Jesus had they known God’s plan, and thus they cannot provide wisdom to the Corinthian church.

Paul then quotes from Isa 64:4 and amplifies it with his own words – No eye has seen, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.

This citation backs up what Paul has said in 2:7, that God has planned to reveal his truth from ages past.

“Heaven” is not the point at all here. Paul is speaking about the truth that can be known in the here and now, since the crucifixion. No human being could ever guess or observe or reason out the blessings of the gospel of Christ, but we Christians already understand them – “these are the things God has revealed [past tense] to us by his Spirit (2:10).

In that case the lesson of 1 Corinthians 2 is – enough of fancy philosophy! Enough of dividing the church over human wisdom! Every Christian already has the fundamental revelation of God’s truth, and should seek truth, wisdom, and love in the basic gospel message.

This post is adapted from my Corinthians commentary; you can download it HERE or purchase it on sale from Logos.

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“‘Eye has not seen’ – or has it? [1 Corinthians],” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

Act now!

Last month I was waiting my turn at the barber shop, and a homeless woman stuck her head in and said she was hungry. I didn’t want to lose my place, but I told the barber, “Uh…hold my spot, be right back!” I popped over to the bakery right next door and got her some food and drink. As usual, I told her in Spanish, “This is in the name of Jesus, ¿sí?” pointing upward to heaven. She smiled and nodded, she understood, said thank you, and walked off.

Last week I went back to the barber, who told me, “Did you hear about the accident at our corner here, how some woman got mowed down and killed in the street a few weeks back? Well, I need to tell you, she was that same woman you bought the food for.”

It took a while for that to sink in: I was one of the last people to speak to her.

For me, the lesson is: If you’re aiming to do something for the Lord Jesus, or put in a good word for him, well, you’d better do it right away.

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An afterthought: yesterday I read a short biography of Francis of Assisi, who purportedly once said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” I get his meaning, but suggest it’s better to say, Preach the gospel, lean heavily on action, but don’t forget to say the words that connect that action to Jesus.

“Act now!” by Gary S. Shogren, Ph. D., Professor of New Testament at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Busyness is no excuse for being an uncommitted Christian

With all due respect to the original, this is my thorough paraphrase, condensation, and updating of George Whitfield’s, “Worldly Business No Plea for the Neglect of Religion,” Sermon 20 of his Collected Sermons

Matthew 8:22 – “Let the dead bury their dead.”

When Paul preached at Athens, he observed that they were “very religious.” But if he came and visited us today, he wouldn’t be able to make the same claim. Rather he would say you are very “fixed on this world” or “pursuing your careers,” so much so that you neglect or even ignore completely the one thing that a Christian needs to do. That’s why I will point out to such believers that they are too busy grabbing material things and instead must be fixed on their future.

It is so easy to be fixed on this world. We claim to be doing God’s will by working hard at our job, but we allow this to make us spiritually dopey.

“Let the dead bury their dead” shows how we should be focused on the life to come.

Jesus Christ himself said these words after he had called on a man to be his disciple, but the man replied “Let me go home first and bury my father,” which probably means, “Let me go and bring my business dealings up to date, first.” Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.” This means, leave the business of this world to people of the world, let your secular matters become unraveled, if that is what is keeping you from following me.

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We don’t know how this man responded in the end. But we do know that Christ is whispering the very same thing to people here, people who get up early and knock off late, and their income comes through stressful work. He says, “Stop fixing your heart on the things of this life (more…)

Love, sure, but during an election year?

A fresh preface to my essay, “The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people.” I include here not only things I observe in others, but principally the things I’d like to root out of my own heart.

The Lord’s return may – or may not – be near, but no-one who reads church history would conclude that we clearly live in the last days. There are relatively no more wars today than throughout history (probably fewer), no more frequent earthquakes, no worse famines. And we have 2000 years of unloving actions on the part of the church to make our current lack of love seem mild by comparison.

Still, Jesus warned us in Matthew 24 that part of the future apostasy will be that “the love of most [believers] will grow cold.” And while 2016 isn’t necessarily the end of history, the fact that it is a political season gives us pause to gauge our level of charitableness.

The Evil One wants to freeze your helping hand

The Evil One wants to freeze your helping hand

The Enemy is pleased to put our love on ice, and he uses arguments both old and new to entice us to join in with him.

A few of his LIES:

“If you really have the truth, then you have the right to be reckless in how you present it.”

“If you feel charitable toward the needy, that is just as good as actually doing something to alleviate their needs. E. g., if you ‘share’ a post about starving children, that’s as filling as a sandwich.”

“Violence is tolerable, so long as it is doled out against the Other, not Us. Because They probably deserve it.”

“Using bad words, even from the pulpit, is okay, since if we love people, we need to get their attention, and fast.  If not curse words, then at least use sheeple, wingnut, moron, etc. Oh, and again, this is cool so long as it’s against the Other, not Us.”

“If you want to help a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, don’t worry about saving the child she is bearing.”

And conversely, “Keeping her from ending a pregnancy is the sole expression of love we need to show toward her.”

Take up your cross and follow Christ refers to abstract, spiritual things, not our daily behavior toward other human beings, and certainly not to our behavior on social media.”

“Hasty and off-the-cuff responses are sweeter to the tongue than slow-brewed wisdom.”

“It’s okay to hate the haters.”

“Well, they started it!”

“Those victims probably deserved it and shouldn’t complain, Our victims are faultless.”

“When people encourage us to act with respect to others, that’s just a ploy of the Politically Correct to shut us down.”

“We should love ‘our own’ first (family, neighborhood, race, religion, tribe) and others less.” [Note: Charity begins at home, while a Christian truth, is perverted when in Satan’s hand.]

Cynicism is a favorite of Hell, to despise the sinner, to make the Other the focus of evil in the world and the butt of “Well, what do you expect of Them?” The fruit of cynicism is sarcasm, sneering, suspicion, contempt, and given time, hatred. Love teaches us remain vulnerable, and endure and even embrace the pain that results from being witnesses to wickedness.

Christ was the one who was “oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth” (Isa 53:7), and he invited us to take up our cross and follow him, even during presidential elections, and he gives us the mighty Holy Spirit to rewrite the code of our mind to enable us to do it. This is what separates Christian charity from mere pleasantness or good manners.

But from all indications, Christian love apparently is meant to follow some weird liturgical calendar, by which the church allows us to lay it aside in 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020, etc., you do the math. That’s why Francis’s prayer of self-dedication, “grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand” (see more below), strikes us nice and Christ-like, but only applicable outside of election seasons. Don’t eat meat on Fridays is sooo medieval; Don’t be charitable every four years is the new fashion!

I urge myself, and invite you, to take Francis at his word, in the run-up to the November election and in any season:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

CLICK to go to The Forgotten Sign of the End Times: icy relations among God’s people.”

“Should we be loving during election years?” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

So: you love the Church, but are indifferent about the people in it?

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” 1 John 4:20 NIV

In John’s language, “hate” isn’t necessarily anything so vile as loathing, or despising, or cursing – “hate” is not-love, that which falls short of perfect love. In other words, “Whoever claims to love God yet does not love some brother or sister is a liar.”

We cannot fancy that we love the church as an abstraction, but turn around and fail to love some particular brother; at no time has God allowed that formulation. Only the Trinity can see at a glance the full body of Christ, marching from antiquity to the kingdom; yet even God sees his people always in the concrete, and never as an abstract. We don’t want to be just a number on a page, and God agrees.

For us there is no body of Christ which we are invited to love as an idea, but always and only in the immediate, the concrete, the personal.

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“So: you love the Church, but are indifferent about the people in it?” by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

Grumpy Legalists

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What can turn happy, friendly Christians into a snarling mob? What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob?

Legalism.

What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob? Legalism!

What transmutes a Good Friday Gang into a Black Friday Mob? Legalism!

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