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Yesterday, I suggested that the most accurate view of the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1 may be to see these heroes of faith as “witnesses of God” rather than “spectators of us.”  By their lives and examples, they testify to God’s faithfulness and verify for us that the race of faith can be run successfully.  This view puts more emphasis on the meaning of martus as a witness/testifier, rather than imagining a celestial stadium full of spectators watching and cheering those who are still running the race here on earth.  I also believe that this view better fits the context of Hebrews 12:1-3 in keeping “all eyes fixed on Jesus” rather than having the gaze of departed saints trained toward us.      

Yet, there is indeed a “cloud of witnesses” which exists to encourage, cheer, strengthen, and motivate us in our race of faith.  It is the body of believers that surrounds us in the church of Jesus Christ.  Consider the vast volume of “one another” passages in the New Testament.  We have a huge responsibility for one another in the here and now.  Suffice it to say that the hands, shoulders, words, and compassion of my contemporary fellow traveler/disciples is of far greater practical benefit to me than the notion of quasi-omniscient departed saints and martyrs who have a full view of my life through a two-way mirror that divides the seen from the unseen realm.  This latter concept might be more unsettling than comforting at times.  

Though Christian singer/songwriter Mark Schultz ultimately gets to the idea of a glorious reception by those who have gone before us as we finish our race, most of his song, Cloud of Witnesses, focuses on the blessing of fellow believers that we have in the here and now.

Cloud of Witnesses
(Words and Music by Mark Schultz)

We watched them runnin’ down the aisles
Children’s time, Sunday morning
The preacher asked them who they loved
They all smiled and started pointing to their mom, their dad
The teacher from their kindergarten class
And each and every one had just come from

A cloud of witnesses that would see them through the years
Cheer them with a smile and pray them through the tears
A cloud of witnesses that would see them to the end
And shower them with love that never ends
A cloud of witnesses

They stuck together through the years
The best of friends faith could foster
So when they found out one of them
Had heard the news he’d lost his father
They ran to him and prayed
And put their hands upon his head
And slowly one by one they’d all become

A cloud of witnesses
As they sent above a prayer
They took hold of hands and
circled ’round a friend
A cloud of witnesses with a faith just like a rock
They helped him give his father back to God
As a cloud of witnesses

So when it comes the time that heaven calls
They’ll come running to see the ones who’ve gone before
And made the journey home to find waiting for them at the finish line
Cheerin’ happily they will run and they will see

A cloud of witnesses
Lined up on a street of gold
As they run the final mile
That leads them to a throne
And through the cloud of witnesses
They see God upon the throne
And as they fall into His arms
They know they’re home in
A cloud of witnesses
Surrounded by a cloud of witnesses

We watched them runnin’ down the aisles
Children’s time, Sunday morning

As a follow-up to Monday’s post, I want to continue pursuing the concept of keeping our focus on Jesus Christ and not letting other things, including ourselves, obscure the view or distract our attention from the Savior.  All too easily our walk of faith can become “all about us” instead of “all about Him.”

A subtle and unintentional shift of focus can even happen when interpreting and applying texts of Scripture that are explicitly intended to urge us to “fix our eyes on Jesus.”  Consider Hebrews 12:1-3:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

The figure that the author of Hebrews uses in these verses is that of an athlete in a race (compare I Cor. 9:25-27; II Tim. 2:5; 4:7-8).  As runners in this race of faith in Christ we are to cast aside anything and everything that would bind, weigh down, or otherwise impede our spiritual progress.  The race takes endurance; it is a marathon, not a sprint.  Our view must extend beyond the hardships and trials of the present to our ultimate goal and prize, to join the One who has run the race before us.  “Fix your eyes on Jesus.” “Consider Him.”  That much seems clear.

So why do we tend to take the “witnesses” from verse 1 and put their focus on us?  We interpretively place them in the stands of the stadium in which we are running the race.  The great heroes of faith who are chronicled in Hebrews 11, along with Christian friends and family members who have passed on before us, are pictured cheering us from their seats to keep running and enduring.  It is indeed a marvelous thought!  Encouraging!  Inspiring!  Comforting!  I’m just not certain that this is what the writer intended to communicate.

I’ve used this interpretation and application myself.  I’ve related it to a personal experience of participating in the Great Aloha Run in the late ’80s.  The 8.15 mile course takes thousands of competitors from Aloha Tower in downtown Honolulu to the finish line in Aloha Stadium.  After completing the race, runners and walkers fill the stands to enjoy refreshments and live entertainment.  Since I finished way back in the pack, it gave me quite a buzz to enter the stadium through the tunnel, then run the length of the turf to the goal line at the far end of the football field while earlier finishers offered up chants of encouragement to all of us stragglers.  Their voices picked up my pace and lengthened my stride even though I felt like my tank was empty.  That’s how I envisioned the cheers of the “cloud of witnesses.” 

I really hate it when Scripture gets in the way of a perfectly good illustration!

The word translated “witnesses” in Heb. 12:1 is the plural form of the Greek word martus (or martys) which generally means “one who testifies; one who serves as a witness, testifying to what has been seen or heard.”  Rarely does it refer to a mere spectator or passive onlooker.  One possible exception (other than here, for those who are predisposed to see “spectators” in Heb. 12:1) is I Tim. 6:12 where Timothy is reminded of the many witnesses who were present when he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ.  However, even there it may point to the fact that Timothy uttered his confession in the company of many others who were testifying to their faith in Christ as well.  The very next verse references Jesus who testified (“witnessed” – marturesantos) before Pilate.  Just as Jesus, the faithful and true Witness (Rev. 1:5; 3:14), suffered and died, so also would multitudes who faithfully followed Him.  This ultimately led to martus being applied to those who died for holding to their testimony (marturia) of faith in Him: martyrs.      

So, I’m not sure that the author of Hebrews meant for us to envision God’s departed faithful ones, like basketball fans during March Madness, sitting around a celestial sports bar with an infinite number of flat screen TVs watching the races of the saints still on earth.    

F.F. Bruce writes:

“But in what sense are they witnesses?  Not, probably, in the sense of spectators, watching their successors as they in their turn run the race for which they have entered; but rather in the sense that by their loyalty and endurance they have borne witness to the possibilities of the life of faith.  It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them – for encouragement.  They have borne witness to the faithfulness of God; they were, in a manner of speaking, witnesses to Christ before His incarnation, for they lived in the good of that promise which has been realized in him.” 

Is Bruce’s interpretation more correct than that of the significant number of commentators who hold to the “spectator” view?  I don’t know for certain, and neither am I sure that it makes a whole lot of difference in the end.  But, I find Bruce’s view more palatable and more consistent with the balance of Scripture and its use of martus.  The “cloud” or “host” are witnesses of God, not spectators of me.  I am inspired and encouraged by looking to these forerunners in the faith whose lives testify that the race can be successfully run, not by the thought of them watching me.       

I believe that Scripture describes a much clearer role of encouragement for the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us and journeys alongside us here on earth.  More on this subject over the next couple of days…

Rob Day’s article, “The Jesus We’ll Never Know,” was the cover story for the April 2010 issue of Christianity Today.  Day began his excellent essay by relating the following story:

“On the opening day of my class on Jesus of Nazareth, I give a standardized psychological test divided into two parts.  The results are nothing short of astounding.”

“The first part is about Jesus.  It asks students to imagine Jesus’ personality, with questions such as, “Does he prefer to go his own way rather than act by the rules?” and “Is he a worrier?”  The second part asks the same questions of the students, but instead of “Is he a worrier?” it asks, “Are you a worrier?”  the test is not about right or wrong answers, nor is it designed to help students understand Jesus.  Instead, if given to enough people, the test will reveal that we all think Jesus is like us.  Introverts think Jesus is introverted, for example, and, on the basis of the same questions, extroverts think Jesus is extroverted.”

“Spiritual formation experts would love to hear that students in my Jesus class are becoming like Jesus, but the test actually reveals the reverse: Students are fashioning Jesus to be more like themselves.  If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar.  To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.”

Rob Day identifies a very real challenge that we face as we seek to “fix our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2) and walk in His steps (I Pet. 2:21).  There is a danger of interpreting Jesus through the lens of our own past, our prevailing culture, our own wishes and desires, and our own personality rather than seeing him “just as He is” in Scripture.  Our challenge is to take ourselves out of the camera’s view so that we can just see Him, and only Him.

A.W. Tozer writes in The Pursuit of God: “Faith is the least self-regarding of the virtues.  It is by its very nature scarcely conscious of itself.  Like the eye which sees everything in front of it and never sees itself, faith is occupied with the Object upon which it rests and pays no attention to itself at all.  While we are looking at God we do not see ourselves – blessed riddance!” 

Let your mind dwell on Tozer’s statement one more time.  “Like the eye which sees everything in front of it and never sees itself, faith is occupied with the Object on which it rests and pays no attention to itself at all.”

C.S. Lewis wrote: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Blessed riddance, indeed!

The King James Version of the Bible turns 400 years old this year!

It is the Bible that I grew up with, learned my first memory verses from, and heard quoted in my father’s sermons and in the lessons of visiting preachers.  It is the translation that made the words of Psalm 23, The Beatitudes, and the Lord’s Prayer flow with poetic beauty.  Since the only other place I ever encountered terms like ye, thee, thou, thy, and thine and words that ended in -eth and -est was in the hymns that we sang in worship, I just assumed that such language was the most fitting and appropriate for the communication of all things holy.  Though I found much of the vocabulary and syntax foreign to the brand of English that I spoke and read in daily life, it was this shear oddity of language that actually proved to be beneficial in the memorization of Scripture.  Never mind that I had no idea what “evil concupiscence” or “superfluity of naughtiness” meant.  Then there were those PG words that appeared in the translation, which if uttered at home still got us into trouble despite our appeals and protests that “it’s in the Bible!”

The story of the translation of the King James Version (and the larger history of the English Bible) is a fascinating study and well worth the time and effort of any English-speaking Christian who has the blessing of reading the Scriptures in their native tongue.  Early translators faced ridicule, opposition, persecution, and even death for their efforts to express the Word of God in the common language of the people of their day.  

By the beginning of the 17th century, there were several notable English translations, but none that found general acceptance across the spectrum of religious factions and among clergy and laity alike.  King James and the group of over 50 scholars that he assembled for work on a new translation sought to change that.  The project had the advantage of numerous translators working in committees with peer review rather than being the work of a single individual (like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, or John Rogers) or the much smaller groups of scholars that had produced the Geneva and Bishops’ Bibles.  While their work was largely a revision of the Bishops’ Bible, the KJV translators consulted and compared other English translations and the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts available to them.     

Like all new translations, the King James Bible (or Authorized Version) faced significant scrutiny and skepticism when it was first published in 1611.  Early editions were plagued by misprints and misspellings, and a standardized text wasn’t achieved until 1769.  Still, the King James Version ultimately became the Bible of the English-speaking world and held that position unrivaled for an unprecedented length of time.  It would be 1885 before the next major English translation was published and another hundred years after that before the KJV was no longer the best-selling English translation.

That was then; this is now.  Changes in the English language and a mountain of new manuscript evidence demanded revision, and the 20th century answered the call with numerous new, scholarly translations.  Like all efforts of man and like the King James Version itself, all of these translations have their strengths and weaknesses, but they have contributed greatly to our being able to know and understand the timelessly relevant truth of the Word of God.

Though now surpassed in sales and usage by other English translations, the place of the King James Version in history (both secular and religious) is secure.  Countless millions of people over the last 400 years have learned God’s story and the message of salvation in Jesus Christ through its pages.

So, happy birthday unto thee, KJV!  You have held your age remarkably well!

In a 8-1 decision on March 2, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, in a suit filed against the church by Albert Snyder.  Snyder’s son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was a U.S. Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2006.  Members of Westboro Baptist picketed Snyder’s funeral, as they have at hundreds of other memorials, with signs bearing messages of “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God Hates the USA,” and “Thank God for 9/11.”  Albert Snyder sued the church for intentional infliction of emotional distress and was awarded $5 million in damages.  A federal appeals court overturned that verdict, and the Supreme Court agreed that the church members were protected by the Constitutional right of freedom of speech.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”  Justice Samuel Alito wrote a lone dissenting opinion. 

As an American, I understand and affirm the reasoning of the Supreme Court Justices who were intent on upholding the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression, regardless of how vile, reprehensible, and hurtful that speech may be.

As a Christian, I am sickened and saddened by the ongoing hatred, insensitivity, and cruel vitriol that are spewed by those who claim the cross of Christ and presume to speak in the name of God. 

Westboro Baptist Church is led by Fred W. Phelps, and the congregation is primarily made up of members of his extended family.  Phelps and his followers believe that our national tragedies, natural disasters, and every American soldier’s death is the direct result of God’s punishment upon our nation for the sin of homosexuality.  They delight in the pain of others.  To a world lost in sin, they offer epithets and slurs, rather than a Gospel of peace and a message of hope.  Few people have spoken more directly about sin than John the Baptist, but somehow he found a way to touch the hearts of tax collectors and prostitutes with a message of repentance (Matt. 21:31-32).  However, he didn’t accomplish this through pickets and insults.  Fred the Baptist could learn a thing or two from John.

I undoubtedly share some of the same moral concerns as Phelps, but I serve a different God than he does.  My God hates no one, but loves each person created in His image so infinitely and completely that He allowed His innocent Son to die on their behalf so that they could receive the forgiveness of sins through the power of His blood.  I have to remind myself, against human inclinations otherwise, that God’s love extends even to Phelps and his purveyors of hate who drive people further from the cross of Christ and block the entrance into the kingdom of God.  That, indeed, is an awesome God.          

I have never met Paula Harrington in person, but I have provided a link to her blog (Thinking Jesus) for quite some time now, and I really enjoy the passion and insights of her writing.  Paula is a sister in Christ who resides in Calvert City, Kentucky, and she has just published her second book, A Common Bond.  Paula posed a series of questions related to life in full-time ministry to a group of 30 preachers among Churches of Christ.  A Common Bond is a compilation of their responses.

Paula has a special place in her heart for preachers.  As she explains in the Foreword of the new book, her father, Paul Nicklaus, was a minister of the Gospel of Christ whose life was cut short by Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 30.  Yet, his faith, influence, and legacy live on in numerous ways, not the least of which is through his daughter. 

Among the 30 preachers of various ages who provided responses for A Common Bond, most are known to me, at least by name.  I have been acquainted with several of them for many years, and some I am blessed to count as dear friends and brothers.  That makes their responses all the more meaningful to me; I know their hearts, and I have witnessed Christ living in them and speaking through them.

I wish that I could have read a book like this in the earliest days of my ministry.  I still would have made plenty of “rookie mistakes,” but I feel certain that the number would have been significantly reduced by the kind of wisdom and counsel that these brothers provide on a wide variety of topics.  There are twenty-seven chapters that deal that with everything from ministry resources and preparing sermons to financial concerns, effects of ministry on one’s family, being fired, humorous stories, and God’s providence in their lives.  “What You Wish You Had Known” and “Most Important Advice” are particularly insightful chapters. 

I am still reading the book, but I am honored that Paula asked me to participate in her Book Blog Tour.  I highly recommend A Common Bond to anyone wishing to gain greater insight into both the joys and the challenges of a life devoted to proclaiming Jesus and His message of salvation and serving in His church. 

Click here to visit Paula’s blog, Thinking Jesus.

Click here to purchase a copy of A Common Bond online.

Robert Duvall as Felix Bush in the film Get Low

The movie Get Low is set in rural East Tennessee in the 1930s and is loosely based on the true story of a Roane County hermit who planned a massive “funeral party” for himself while he was still alive.  Though Kim and I are not big moviegoers anymore, I was intrigued enough by a review of the film in the Tulsa World last August that we made a special effort to see it at the cinema.  Maybe it was because the review’s description of the setting reminded me of the place and time in which my Dad grew up in Tennessee.  Maybe it is because from childhood I remembered an old man near Dad’s home community named Floyd Haislip, the proprietor of the small, country store in Beech Hill who kept his casket prominently displayed on top of the center aisle.  More about that in another post!  Anyway, Kim and I were riveted by Get Low at the theater and bought the DVD when it was released last month.    

Get Low contains superb acting by Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, and Bill Cobbs.  Duvall portrays the protagonist Felix Bush, a character inspired by the real life Tennessee hermit, Felix “Bush” Breazeale.  Though the movie contains more profanity than necessary (it is rated PG-13), Get Low grapples very dramatically with issues of isolation, loneliness, a haunting past, repentance, and forgiveness.  Christianity Today ranked the film number three in its list of The Most Redeeming Films of 2010.

While I won’t give away the entire plot or details of the ending for the sake of those who still haven’t seen the movie, there were several scenes that dealt directly with spiritual issues.

When approached by Felix Bush about the possibility of having a “funeral party,” Rev. Gus Horton (McRaney) asked, “Are you sick?”  Bush replied, “Everybody dies.”  Horton: “What matters is, that, when you come to the end of your life, that you’re ready for the next one.  Now, have you made peace with God, sir?”  Bush: “I’ve paid.”  Horton: “Mr. Bush, you can’t buy forgiveness; it’s free, but you do have to ask for it.”  God indeed freely offers to mankind the gift of His grace and salvation through Jesus Christ, but it must be humbly accepted and received through obedient faith and spiritual washing in the blood of the Lamb.    

Bush then sought assistance with his “living funeral” from an old friend and African-American minister, Rev. Charlie Jackson (Cobbs), whom he had met 40 years earlier.  Jackson to Bush: “After you left here, did you do the right thing?”  Bush: “I felt that I did the right thing.”  Jackson: “Confessed?  Asked forgiveness?”  Bush then objected that he had built his own prison and lived in it for 40 years with no wife, no children, and no friends.  Bush muttered, “If that’s not enough…,” and then walked away.  We know from Scripture that it isn’t enough; no amount of self-punishment is sufficient to take away the guilt of our sin.  “Nothing, but the blood of Jesus.”  “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling.” 

As Bush wrestles alone with his inner conflict, he says, “They keep talking about forgiveness.  ‘Ask Jesus for forgiveness.’  I never did nothing to Him.”  If only that were true!  “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities;  The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.  All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to His own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him,”  (Isaiah 53:5-6).

When Jackson ultimately spoke at Bush’s funeral party, he began by saying, “We like to imagine that good and bad, right and wrong, are miles apart.  But, the truth is, very often they are all tangled up with each other.”  It reminded me of the apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 7:19, “For the good that I want, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”  It also reminded me of the tenet of conventional wisdom which says, “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves all of us not to talk about the rest of us.” 

In his climactic speech, a weary and worn Felix Bush says, “I did something I was ashamed of; something I couldn’t ever fix.  But, I didn’t want forgiveness; I needed to hold on to what I did, to be sick from it every day of my life… This was all my fault … I’m so ashamed… I would like forgiveness now, if possible… and then I don’t mind dying for real next time, but please forgive me.”

If you haven’t seen Get Low, I would highly recommend it to you.  If you have seen it, please feel free to comment with your thoughts about the film.

With yesterday’s post still fresh on my mind, I was listening to The Best of Van Morrison last night as I was putting a serious dent in a painting project at home.  I hadn’t listened to that particular cd in quite a while, and the song “Full Force Gale” really jumped out at me.  I have always liked the song, but it took on additional meaning as I considered God’s work in my life.  With both lyrics and music composed by Morrison, the song first appeared on his 1979 album Into the Music. 

It’s a joyful song, filled with gladness and gratitude, and I just felt like sharing it.  You can click on the title below for the audio.  

 Full Force Gale

Like a full force gale, I was lifted up again
I was lifted up again by the Lord

No matter where I roam
I will find my way back home
I will always return to the Lord

In the gentle evening breeze
By the whispering shady trees
I will find my sanctuary in the Lord

I was headed for a fall
Then I saw the writing on the wall

Like a full force gale, I was lifted up again
I was lifted up again by the Lord

I recently ran into an old friend and fellow-minister that I haven’t seen for a few years.  We didn’t have a lot of time to chat, but it was long enough to catch up on a few high points and “vital statistics” regarding our lives and our families.  Before we parted company he said, “Tim, I’m really glad that you’re back in the harness.”  He didn’t elaborate, but it wasn’t necessary for me to ask for a clarification of his point of reference.  I knew immediately that he was referring to the fact that I was serving in full-time ministry. 

“Back in the harness!”  

When I was at the lowest point of my life in the fall of 2008, I didn’t see returning to full-time ministry as a viable option for the future (see Back from the Brink).  I informed family and friends that I would be seeking another vocational direction in my life.  I would find a way to “make tents” and would serve the Lord through whatever means He provided.  That was the only reasonable outlook through the eyes of man.  God, however, could see a different path ahead.  Only He was capable of bringing about the kind of emotional and physical healing that I so desperately needed.  Only He could restore strength to my family.  Only He could open the door of opportunity that resulted in the leadership of the Broken Arrow church inviting me to join them in ministry two years ago.

While “back in the harness” is not an expression that I had previously considered, I’m grateful that it entered the mind of my yoke-fellow and that he shared it with me.  It caused me to do some reflection which resulted in grateful praise to our God of Second Chances. 

The harness of ministry feels good and feels right!

Perhaps a return to the “blogging harness” will be coming soon as well.

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March 2011