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Redeemer Church

Redeemer Church
Looking for a church in the Omaha area? Come check out ours on Sunday mornings at 11!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Challenges from the Exodus account

As I've mentioned before, our church is going through the first five books of the Bible during a series we're calling the Old Testament Challenge. This past week we read—and the Community Groups discussed—the account in Exodus covering the ten plagues. There were some really good questions during our discussion time and I wanted to offer some (hopefully) succinct answers to a few questions I imagine are very common from these passages.

Q: Why so many plagues and why so severe? Was God just wielding the ten plagues like a playground bully, twisting Pharaoh's arm until he cried "uncle"?

A: No, it was much more than just a battle of the wills. Egypt was a pantheistic society, which means they worshiped many gods. Each of the ten plagues was direct challenge (and defeat) of one or more of those gods in the minds of the Egyptians. In essence, God was demonstrating his superiority and sovereignty over all of the created order and the supposed corresponding Egyptian pantheon. Pharaoh and all the Egyptians would have rightly understood this as a sort of clash of the titans, with the Israelite God emerging as the clear victor.

For instance, darkness was an assault on the sun god, Ra. The Nile turning to blood was an attack on Hapi, god of the Nile. With each plague, the Israelite God worked his way up the rungs of the Egyptian pantheon, finally reaching the Supreme: Pharaoh himself. The Egyptian religious system held that the Pharaoh was a human incarnation of Ra and that he was a god-king. So the death of Pharaoh's first born was the death of the son of god, the god-in-waiting.

Not only was this final plague seen as the defeat of Egypt's preeminent god figure, but within it (and the Passover sacrifice and meal) was a beautiful foreshadowing of both the Old Testament sacrificial system and the eventual perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. So in each of the plagues—but especially the last—God is anything but a mere bully and arbitrary in his actions.

Q: Were all the other Egyptians (and the Israelites, too) just innocent victims suffering collateral damage in this battle of the gods?

A: No. God demonstrated his ability to execute a surgical strike when necessary. The land of Goshen, the Israelite district within Egypt, was spared some of the plagues like those of flies, darkness and livestock. We are even told that some Egyptians were spared the worst of certain plagues when they "feared the word of the Lord" and responded properly (see the account of the hail for example).

However, it is conceivable that God had designs even for those plagues that afflicted both Egyptians and Israelites indiscriminately. After all, even the Israelites delayed in honoring, fearing and obeying the direction and word of the Lord through Moses.

It is also reasonable to assume that Pharaoh was not the only Egyptian holding out hope that one of the higher and mightier deities might finally put an end to this God of the slaves. In fact, there is never any account of any repentance or pleading for mercy or sanctuary on the side of the Egyptian people. This idea seems supported by the fact that there is no account of any Egyptians fleeing to Goshen during some of the more localized plagues. Whether they still held out greater hope in their gods (and Pharaoh) or whether they simply feared Pharaoh more than God, the silence of the Egyptian population doesn't necessitate their innocence.

Q: How do we make sense of the biblical account when it says "God hardened Pharaoh's heart"?

A: This is probably one of the most common and challenging questions from the entire book. One question that I have found important to ask about this problem is: "What action is required of God in order for Pharaoh's heart to harden?"

The Bible does declare emphatically that "God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed." (James 1:13,14) So God would not tempt Pharaoh and in deed did not need to if Pharaoh's own evil desire and inclination was already against God. If this is true, than all that would be required is for God to release Pharaoh and turn him over to his fallen tendency towards hardness of heart. This same progression of fallenness is shown in Romans 1 when Paul writes three times that God "gave them over" to sinful desires, shameful lusts and a depraved mind. So while God may be the passive agent releasing fallen mankind to do whatever they desire, Pharaoh and the rest of humanity would be the active agents in our sin and rebellion. Our fallenness simply dictates what we do with our freedom when God turns us loose.

The biblical writer of Exodus communicates as much when switches back and forth between the idea the God hardened Pharaoh's heart and Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32). Certainly the author was not implicating God in Pharaoh's sinfulness, but it does seem he sees even Pharaoh's willful, sinful hardness as under the sovereign allowance of God.

In summary, the Bible always keeps these two ideas in balance and tension: the active willful rebellion of mankind within our freedom and the passive allowance of that rebellion under the sovereign rule of God. In this way, both the moral responsibility of man and the ultimate sovereignty of God is preserved.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book Review: A Praying Life by Paul Miller

I am not much of a prayer. I mean, I pray, but no one that knows me would put me in the category of "prayer warrior". In fact, I have trouble finding the time to pray and, even when I do find that, finding the words to pray.

This is perhaps why I loved A Praying Life by Paul Miller so much. While it is packed with wisdom and helpful instruction, it is written by and intended for the struggling prayer. If you're like me, a book on prayer sounds about as appealing as a book on having your cavities drilled at the dentist (you and I were both wrong).

Unfortunately, practice is much harder than principle. This is not a book to be rushed through. I would recommend a slow pace that allows you to implement the various disciplines and directives within. Believe me, it will be worth your time.

Not only did the book read much easier than I expected, it really stuck with me. I have found myself quoting him often in my Community Group as the various challenges to prayer are common and widespread. Additionally, this book will be one I will loan and recommend often and it even made it onto my "read again" list (a surprisingly short list, believe it or not).

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian (yes, all of you)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: The Grace of God by Andy Stanley

The God of the Old Testament can sometimes seem like a starkly different person from the God that Jesus reveals to us in the New Testament (so much so, in fact, that heresies have sprung from the idea that they are two different gods). His dealings with many Old Testament characters can seem harsh and cruel—as the New Atheists love to point out. However, just under the surface is a strong current of grace that flows through the biblical narrative from beginning to end, from Adam and Eve, through Jesus, and all the way to the modern-day believer.

Andy Stanley charts the thread of God's unmerited favor through the Bible in his book, The Grace of God. As he recounts some of the better and lesser known biblical accounts, there is enough history, humor and insight to make even the most familiar stories fresh. Some of the most interesting chapters deal with the shady Old Testament characters and episodes that make it into Jesus' lineage (i.e. Judah, Rahab, "the wife of Uriah").

And yet one would have to be blind to not see, in the retelling of grace in each of these lives, the same grace that is constantly at work in our own lives. Andy Stanley has taken one of the Bible's most dominant themes, retold it in captivating fashion and captured a satisfying portrait of the Gospel of grace in the process.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of Beth Moore, Philip Yancey and anyone desiring to get a good big-picture idea of the Bible

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book Review: Pure Pleasure by Gary Thomas

Ask the average non-Christian on the street and they will probably tell you that the God of Christianity is just out to set a bunch of rules and spoil everybody's fun. They may even suggest that to become a Christian means to devote yourself to a life of monkish asceticism and self-denial. In Pure Pleasure, Gary Thomas sets out to debunk this misconception, and does so in rousing form and in the spirit of the likes of John Piper and C.S. Lewis.

Early last year I was sent a copy of The Glorious Pursuit unsolicited and I read it not knowing what to expect, being unfamiliar with the author and his work. I have been thrilled with everything I have read from Gary Thomas ever since and this book is no exception. Central to Thomas' argument is the idea that pleasure is good, God created pleasure, and we are created and intended to pursue our highest pleasures (ala Piper). In fact, at the core of most sins and temptations is a good pleasure—a good drive—that is being hijacked by our fallen, sinful nature.

The solution, Gary offers in part, is not to deny ourselves these illicit pleasures, but rather to so pursue and satisfy ourselves on holy pleasures that we kill at the root our temptations. As he says, "Using pleasure to point us back to God instead of allowing it to compete with him (or worse, letting it draw us away from him) roots us in the greatest pleasure that will never, ever end".

Always the Christian life should be one of biblical balance. A time to indulge, a time to abstain. A time to exercise self-control, a time to get lost in something purely good. This book is not an argument against a Puritan life, it shares the key to finding and nurturing godly pleasure in life, even if yours is a Puritan one.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Those interested in spiritual growth; those dealing with sin, temptation, legalism

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan books.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Exclusive Q&A with the authors of Is God Just a Human Invention?

If you are interested in McDowell and Morrow's book Is God Just a Human Invention?, head over to the other blog I am a contributor to, Christians In Context, for an exclusive Q&A with the authors!