Thursday, December 30, 2010

Captial Punishment

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Captial Punishment:

Q: What is the Bible’s teaching regarding the death penalty? In what circumstances is it allowed, required, or forbidden? If a person comes to trust Jesus and is forgiven by God, should they still be executed for their crimes?

During Old Testament times, capital punishment was a fixture among the people of Israel. When God defined crimes and punishments for His people, several offenses were punishable by death. Much like our present-day federal law and the laws of many of our states, God specified the death penalty for crimes like murder and treason. In addition, the Old Testament law required the death penalty for several other offenses. These included things such as marital unfaithfulness, cursing one’s parents, or working on the Sabbath, which most readers would no longer associate with being punishable by death today.

These laws, however, were given to a particular people (Israel) in a particular time (before Jesus). In the Ten Commandments, which reveal God’s moral demands for all people of all times and places, murder, adultery, and other offenses punishable by death under the Old Testament law are still forbidden, but specific punishments are not mandated. Even in the cases where the Old Testament law did mandate the death penalty for crimes committed among the people of Israel, it always assigned the tasks of sentencing and executing to those lawfully appointed to rule the land and never to individuals or self-appointed judges.

On one hand, the New Testament demonstrates events where Jesus is shown having mercy on those who would have otherwise been punished with death, such as the woman caught in adultery described in John 8. However, in that case, those who were seeking to put her to death were not lawful representatives of the governing authorities. On the other hand, even though Jesus mercifully spared this particular woman from execution, He never speaks, in principle, against execution by a lawful government.

In Romans, Paul touches on the government’s prerogative to use execution as a means of punishing evil and keeping order when he says, “If you do wrong, be afraid, for [the one in authority] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 ESV) With these words, Paul acknowledges that, even in New Testament times, the government does have the right to punish wrongdoing, even to the point of capital punishment, and furthermore, indicates that when it does so, it is actually serving God by its actions.

Based on these verses and other examples from the Scriptures, the Bible’s teaching is that it is acceptable, although not mandatory, for lawful governments to exercise the “power of the sword” by executing those convicted of serious crimes. In accord with this principle, Christian churches have historically acknowledged and supported the right of the government to execute murderers, traitors, and those guilty of other serious crimes.

At the same time, Christian churches have historically opposed cases where a government abuses its authority by executing without a proper trial or by punishing minor crimes with death. Christianity has also opposed the abuse of government authority by handing down excessive punishments, such as those seen in Islamic law, which demands amputation of a hand for theft and other similar punishments.

While it is the prayer of all Christians that criminals would repent of their crimes and be forgiven by God, the Church recognizes that the government’s duty to keep order in society may prevent it from withdrawing a punishment based on a reported religious conversion. In these cases, the criminal may still need to face justice in spite of their repentance, because no human authority can judge the sincerity of the heart.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Jesus' words, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"

Q: What does it mean when it says that Jesus was “forsaken” on the cross? If Jesus was God, how could He be forsaken by God? Why would God do this?

The Bible records this event for us in Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46. While Jesus was being crucified, He cried out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” These words are also seen in Psalm 22 as King David predicts the death of Jesus.

The word that Jesus used when He said this, and which most of our Bibles translate as “forsaken” literally means that God the Father abandoned or deserted Jesus as He was dying on the cross. There are some who propose that Jesus merely felt abandoned or thought He was abandoned, but the historic teaching of the Church has always been that Jesus literally was abandoned by God while He was being crucified.

One of the simplest statements that a Christian makes about what they believe, and that is often one of the first taught to young children is that “Jesus died for my sins.” The event of Jesus being forsaken by God the Father is an essential factor in making Jesus’ death sufficient to pay for the sins of humanity.

Contrary to what is sometimes taught today, God does take sin seriously, no matter how big or small the sin is according to human estimation. Because God is holy and righteous, He cannot just leave sin unpunished, and if He did leave sin unpunished, He would no longer be holy or righteous. Therefore, in order for us to escape paying the well-deserved punishment for our sins—namely death, followed by eternal torment—someone had to be punished.

This is one of the most important doctrines of Christianity, which is called the Substitutionary Atonement. This means that Jesus first perfectly obeyed God’s law in our place, then, even though He had not sinned against God or committed any crime, He was executed by crucifixion. However, if he had merely died, it would be insufficient to save humanity from punishment. In order for Jesus to be the substitute for humanity, He had to suffer the full, unbridled wrath of God in His death. So, as Jesus died, God abandoned Him, pouring out the punishment for the sin of all people of all times on Jesus. This is also predicted beforehand in Isaiah 52-53.

When Jesus was forsaken by God the Father, He suffered the penalty for the world’s sin. God the Father punished God the Son for the sin of the world. Therefore God Himself actually suffered the penalty for our sin in order to save us. Jesus death was not merely an example of sacrificial love. Instead, it was a real sacrifice where God gave Himself up to be killed to suffer punishment for the sins of humanity. This was even seen in nature, as at the moment of Jesus’ death, the sky was darkened and the earth shook.

As King David predicted these events in Psalm 16, He also said, “You will not abandon my soul to the grave, nor let your Holy One see decay.” This was fulfilled when Jesus rose from death on the third day after His crucifixion. Because He had not sinned, death had no claim on Him, and because the penalty for the world’s sin had already been paid, there is now no longer any condemnation for the sins of those who trust that Jesus has suffered God’s wrath on their behalf and been punished for their sins. As a result, those who die trusting in Jesus and have been Baptized into His death, will also rise on the last day, just as He rose on the third day, and live eternally in a new creation freed from the disaster, pain, sickness, sorrow, and suffering that our sin has brought upon the present world.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Problem of Evil

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Problem of Evil:

(This article is an excerpt from my sermon for the funeral of Vicky Bowman-Hall.)

Q: If God is good and God has power over all things, then why are tragedies allowed to happen? How could God allow evil things to happen to people who seem good?

This is a question that has been asked by people in our area repeatedly in light of recent events. As we look for answers, we must first realize that we cannot fully comprehend spiritual things during out life in this world, because our understanding is obscured by sin. We cannot find answers by looking within ourselves or continually rehashing our own thoughts. Events like those two weeks ago force us to admit that speculation and philosophizing are completely inadequate to answer the spiritual questions of this world. Instead of relying on our own thoughts about the hidden things of God, we rely on what He has revealed to us as certain in Scripture, and submit our thoughts to it.

First among these is that death by any means was not God’s desire for humanity. When God created the world, death was not part of the design. All things worked as they were intended. None of the suffering, sorrow, and tragedy we experience had come upon the world, but when our first ancestors disobeyed God’s command, they brought disaster both upon the world and upon all of those who would be their offspring. Because of their actions, the world is broken, and as all people follow in their ways, we contribute to its brokenness.

We ordinarily see evidence of this brokenness in natural disasters, illness, accidents, and other seemingly unavoidable tragedies that result in death. We commonly witness its existence through our broken relationships and personal conflicts, and on rare occasions, we see evil tangibly demonstrated through the deliberate and senseless actions of a human agent as we have had the misfortune to experience in our community in recent days. In spite of our best efforts to do what is right, things still come apart and our efforts fail.

The second thing we can know with certainty is that God has acted on our behalf to correct the situation so that death and evil are not the final word. God intervened by becoming human as Jesus of Nazareth. Even though we repeatedly disobey His commands, He fulfilled each of them completely as our substitute. He suffered every hardship and sorrow that we suffer in this life—the early death of his step-father and earthly guardian, and even that of being murdered Himself. Even though He had neither sinned against God nor broken any earthly law, he was put to death by crucifixion. In the midst of that death, He experienced a punishment in our place, which no other person has experienced during their earthly life as He was abandoned by God while He died. He suffered all of these things willingly for the purpose of enduring punishment as our substitute so that He could give to us every good thing which He had earned by His perfect life, among which are the forgiveness of our sins, and eternal life in a new creation which does not know the trials we experience in this world. Since God has gone to these lengths to save and provide for our deepest need, then we trust him to bring us also through all other earthly trials, even when we do not fully understand how or why they occur.

The third thing to which we can turn when facing the tragedies of this life is that on the third day after He was crucified, Jesus rose from death, giving evidence that He had, in fact, defeated death by His death. And, just as He is risen from the dead, all who trust in Him to forgive their sins and save them from death also will rise on the last day when He returns to judge the living and the dead. Even in the face of earthly tragedy, we have the hope that He will restore all things when He comes again and give those who trust in Him eternal life in a world without the sorrow and tragedy we know in this life.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Twelve Disciples

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Jesus' Twelve Disciples:

Q: The Bible says that Jesus had twelve disciples, but as I read the Gospels, there seems to be a much larger group, as well as more than twelve men named as disciples. How can this be reconciled? Also, in what order did Jesus call the Twelve disciples?

In the four Gospels, there are several different ways that the word “disciples” is used. The broadest of these, is that any person who believes the message that Jesus teaches and follows Him is a disciple. There is also a group of 72 men, who Jesus sends out to preach and perform miracles who are called disciples. The narrowest sense in which the word disciple is used is in reference to the inner circle of Jesus’ twelve closest followers. The Bible also refers to this group as “the twelve” (or “the eleven” after Judas betrayed Jesus). The context in which the word is used tells us which group is word is intended to refer to.

The reason that there seem to be more than twelve names listed for Jesus’ closest disciples is that it was not uncommon in those days for men to have both a Hebrew name and a Greek or Roman name, so sometimes the Gospels use one name, while a different Gospel may use another. Lists of the Twelve are found in Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, and Luke 6:14-16.

The list of Jesus twelve disciples below uses the names by which they are traditionally commemorated in the Church. Names in parentheses are additional names by which they are known in the four Gospels.

· Peter (Simon son of Jonah, Cephas)

· Andrew

· James the Elder (James Son of Zebedee, James the Greater)

· John

· Philip

· Bartholomew (Nathaniel)

· Thomas

· Matthew (Levi)

· James the Lesser (James Son of Alphaeus, James the Younger)

· Jude (Thaddaeus, Judas Son of James)

· Simon ( Simon the Zealot, Simon the Canaanean)

· Judas Iscariot

In Acts, chapter 1, we read that Matthias was chosen as replacement for Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide after betraying Jesus.

Regarding the order of the disciples’ calling, there are two possibilities. According to John 1:35-51, the first disciples were probably Andrew and John. Peter was brought to Jesus by his brother, Andrew, followed by Philip and Nathaniel (Bartholomew). The other three Gospels also briefly mention the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Since James and John are called together in these other accounts, it is likely that James was called either immediately before or after Peter, but before Philip and Nathaniel. There is no information given on the calling of Thomas, James, Jude, Simon the Zealot, or Judas Iscariot. Matthew appears to be the final disciple called, but this is not conclusively stated the text. The lists given in Matthew, Mark, and Luke appear in a very similar order to this, but not identical, because they are listed there according to rank (Peter first, Judas Iscariot last) rather than Chronology. We know this because Andrew precedes Peter in John's account of their calling, but Peter is listed first in the three lists.

Another reasonable conclusion regarding the order of their calling is that the twelve disciples had been individually called to the larger group of 72 or more disciples which followed Jesus, following which He called them all simultaneously, at a later time, to the inner circle of twelve with which we are familiar and who are listed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The calling accounts that are found in the four Gospels, then, would be their calling to the larger group rather than the inner circle.