P A S T O R ‘ S   B L O G

In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

Six Degrees of Separation

The phrase, “six degrees of separation,” was coined in the early part of the last century and is based on the idea that we can socially connect ourselves to any other person in the world through a series of about six relationships. For example, the theory states that any of us might be able to connect ourselves to the Prime Minister of Australia through a series of relatives, friends, neighbours, or colleagues. Each relationship has to be two-way, meaning that both persons have to be able to identify each other. Thus, I cannot use King Charles as a connection because I suspect he doesn’t know who I am. Studies have been done recently that support this theory, saying that it is most probable that a farmer living in a remote area of Southern Alberta can be connected to a Buddhist monk living in a remote region of Tibet through a series of a mere six relationship connections.

Because we are so interconnected, perhaps instead of using the phrase “six degrees of separation” we should replace it with “six degrees of closeness or interconnectedness.” We are closer to each other than we might think.

Perhaps we are even closer to each other today even with our rapidly growing world population than we were 100 years ago when the world population was just a fraction of what it is today. In the last century or so, the migration of people from across vast distances has become quite common. Even in a village like Nobleford we can run into people from several continents, Africa, Europe, Asia and South America, for example, who have immigrated to Canada in recent years. They connect us immediately to their homes, decreasing the number of steps needed to connect ourselves to people in distant lands. So, while we may not know the person in China who built our smart phone or have any idea who the Vietnamese person was who sewed together the parts of the shirt we are wearing, we can be rather certain that somehow we are connected to them with as few as six relationships.

This is interesting information, and for those of us who love finding connections between people, it can even be rather thrilling to think that there is a network of relationships which join every single person in the world to everyone else. But there is another side and that is one that asks what our responsibility is to others. We want our friends to do well. We also hope that the friends of our friends do well as well, even if we don’t know them. If a friend of a friend has financial needs because of an illness, we might contribute a few dollars to support them. It is the right thing to do after all. But what about a friend of a friend of a friend? Do we want them to thrive as well? Where may we stop? Is a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of friend of a friend too distant? That is how close the most distant person in the world is to us. Do we feel any sort of responsibility to them? Should we be concerned about their needs? Should we offer to help because we are connected to them?

When Scripture teaches us to love our neighbours, it is easy to limit that love to those who are in close physical proximity to us. In other words, our neighbours are only those who we know personally. Jesus had other ideas. When he was asked who he considered our neighbours to be, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. To fully understand that story, we need to know that not only did the Jews dislike the Samaritans, but that Samaritans had every reason to dislike the Jews. The Jewish people had done much to harm the Samaritans. They surrounded the region of Samaria with Galilee to the north and Judea to the south, thus potentially limiting trade and access to resources. They would not develop friendships with Samaritans, avoiding them whenever possible. And, sadly, Jews would not allow Samaritans to come close to God, excluding them from the temple even when the Samaritans claimed to (and did) worship the same God. When the Samaritans built their own temple a couple of centuries before Jesus walked this earth, the Jews attacked it and tore it down. The Samaritans had every right to dislike the Jews and even desire the worst for them. Yet, as Jesus tells the story, this unknown Samaritan man helped the injured man (most likely a Jew, for this was Jewish territory) by tending to him and paying for his ongoing care. While both Jews and Samaritans worked hard at keeping themselves separate from each other, this Samaritan saw the injured man to be his neighbour, and he did whatever it took to care for him. In telling this story Jesus widened the definition of “neighbour” to include everyone within it even when there is no direct connection. Our interconnectedness serves to reinforce the relationships we have with each other and thus moves us to accept responsibility for each other. Every other person on this planet is our neighbour and therefore we are obligated to show our concern for them.

Thankfully, many Christians have shown a deep concern for our neighbours. One of the biggest problems facing the vast majority of people who struggle is the lack of opportunity. Large western corporations pretend to bring opportunity to the developing world by moving their manufacturing facilities there, but the opportunities they provide often involve long hours, low pay, and poor and unsafe working conditions and tend to profit the corporation and not the worker. On the other hand, Christians have found ways to provide opportunities which have a lasting impact and profound impact on others. For example, I know someone who was involved with an organization called “Farmer to Farmer,” in which farmers from the West shared some of their expertise with struggling farmers, often providing them with small operating loans so that they could improve their buildings and buy equipment. As the loan was repaid, that money, in turn, was loaned to other farmers. Unlike some “helping” which is nothing more than a handout, Farmer to Farmer helped by giving opportunities, and over time, the farmers began to thrive. These efforts often take a lot of time to bear fruit, but when they do it is generally fruit that will last.

The beautiful thing about becoming involved in the lives of others is that the six degrees of separation becomes a personal connection as the farmers came to know each other through personal interaction. Not all of us can develop a personal connection with someone who is six degrees away, but we can certainly support those who do. Even one degree of separation is better than six. The positive side to loving our neighbours is that the separation between us and our six-degree separated neighbour is closed, and we become a close community. For me, as a person who loves finding connections, being able to cut down the six degrees of separation to one or two degrees of closeness is a foretaste of heaven. Being able to do that by loving our neighbour, no matter how distant, is not only a obligation and calling; it is a pleasure and privilege.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Bible Translations

Recently someone asked me what version of the Bible is the best translation. We have the New International Version in our church pews and on the overhead, but the translation we use is not the latest NIV. The one we use was published in 1984 while the most current version of the NIV was published in 2011, for it was felt that an update in the translation was needed. In addition to the NIV, we have multiple translations available to us that are all different from each other. How can we know which one we should use? There are several things we should consider when choosing a translation.

First, we must consider the text of the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). Since the original manuscripts have not survived, all we are left with are copies (and often copies of copies of copies). Thankfully, we have many copies from various places allowing scholars to compare the variety of variant readings and make very careful decisions about which readings are the most likely to have been the original. Variant readings do not often change the core meaning of the text, but it is important to get as close as possible to the words that the biblical authors used. Thankfully, because of centuries of good scholarly work, we can be confident that the texts we now use in the original languages are reliable. Nevertheless, some versions of the Bible rely on older, less reliable manuscripts. (The King James Version is one of those versions, having been produced in 1611 at a time when access to the best original language texts was not yet available, but even that text is reliable enough to give us no reason for concern.)

The work of ensuring that we have an accurate original language text continues and while we can anticipate some minor change, we can be assured that what we have is faithful to the original. That being said, translators have to make sure that they understand the original language and make themselves aware of the different meanings and nuances of a word. Some Hebrew and Greek words have different meanings, depending on the context. English is the same, for the sentence, “That man is gay,” means something very different depending on whether we are reading a sentence written in 1953 or 2023. Translators must be certain that they understand the meaning of the words they are translating. While the text of the original language remains stable, there is often discussion about the exact meaning of a particular word. (The word that is translated in Romans 3:25 as “sacrifice of atonement” is one of the words that evokes much discussion.) Again, we can be thankful that scholars generally agree on the meaning and usage of most of the Hebrew and Greek words. Even at that, we recognize that all translation is interpretive, meaning that the translators have begun the process of interpreting the Bible for us.

Translators not only have to be versant in the original language, but they must also be aware of nuances and meanings of words in English. As we are well aware, the English language changes over time (Shakespeare is difficult to read for most of us), and our language has regional differences (cars in England have boots and bonnets). This poses a challenge, for translators must choose language that their contemporaries will understand. This is one of the reasons that there are many translations available to us, and some of them have been updated more than once. What translators want to do is ensure that when we read our English translations, we understand the meaning as it was meant to be understood.

In translation work, translators must decide on a philosophy of translation, and their philosophy normally falls somewhere on a scale. On one of the scale we have more literal translations and on the other we have what some call a dynamic equivalent translation. In a more literal translation (no translation is fully literal), the original languages are translated word for word. Thus, in the King James Version, for example, we find the expression “bowels of mercy,” which is a literal rendering of the Greek. However, that makes very little sense to any of us, and we might miss the meaning of what was originally written. Thus, someone who is interested in getting the meaning across might decide to abandon literalism and substitute an equivalent idea and in the NIV, we find the word, “compassion.” That word we understand, although it might not get quite to the heart of the Greek word. In either a literal (word for word) translation or a dynamic equivalent (idea for idea) translation, there is always going to be a lack of precision in the translations, simply because we speak a different language. A literal translation can easily be misunderstood (and often is), but a dynamic translation can be a little looser than we might desire. Translations on both ends of the scale have benefits, but they also have their drawbacks.

It is important that when we choose a translation, we understand the intentions of the translators. If the translators tend toward literalism, we must not complain that their language is hard to understand and often difficult to read. On the other hand, when a translator intends to translate idea by idea, we ought not complain that their choices don’t necessarily reflect the depth or breadth of what was originally written. We must allow the translations to do what they were intended to do and appreciate them for that.

So, what do we do? There are several options. The first is to learn the original languages. I have studied both Hebrew and Greek, and I have a basic proficiency in them. However, I am far from fluent in either language, and must rely heavily on the work of others both in the meaning of the original word and way I should translate it. On my bookshelf is a 10-volume dictionary containing a discussion about the meaning of most of the Greek words used in the Bible. When I turn to these books, I must still decide which meaning and nuance is the best way for us to understand the word. Again, to do that well, I must rely heavily on scholars who are far more fluent in these languages.

The second option is to read several different translations. Most of us won’t learn the original languages, but most of also have access to different translations. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some reading about the intentions of the translators so that we can best understand what to expect as we use their translation. When choosing several translations, it is best to pick one which is quite literal (e.g. New King James Version), one that tends toward dynamic equivalency (e.g. New Living Translation), and one that is somewhere in the middle (e.g. New International Version). If you can understand another modern language, reading a Bible in that language can also be helpful.

Sometimes we hear people say that they will read only one translation of the Bible to the rejection of all the rest. For them, all the rest aren’t good enough. That is probably a short-sighted decision, for those who read only one version are not getting the whole picture. While all of us have a preferred translation, it is helpful to appreciate other translations, for by reading them in parallel, we will gain a better understanding of what the original authors intended. While we may become confused by all the translations available to us, we also should be thankful for them. I grew up having only the KJV available to me, and while the words and phrases became familiar, my Bible was about as easy to understand as Shakespeare, and for good reason, for Shakespeare’s plays were produced at about the same time as the KJV. Today, access to many translations gives us a better understanding of God’s revelation, and that really is our goal. Let’s use the tools God has given us and be thankful for those who made them available to us.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Attrition versus Contrition

Sometimes, when a public figure is caught in wrongdoing, they acknowledge what they did and they express sorrow or repentance. We can be cynical about their apology because we might believe that they would never have “repented” if they had not been caught. We wonder if they truly are sorry for their wrongdoing. We also wonder if their repentance is a result of their wanting to maintain their office, and “repenting” of wrongdoing is a way to gain support of those who put them in their office (usually voters).

Contrast this to someone who has wronged another and has not yet been found out and probably would get away with what they did. Perhaps it’s a contractor who has mistakenly overcharged his client for materials and when he discovers the error he can’t sleep at night. He goes to this client with a cheque, seeking to right the wrong.

There are two similar words that are used to describe these scenarios. The first is attrition. Attrition is sorrow for sin merely out of fear of punishment or a sense of shame. The public figure wants to avoid the fallout of denying his wrongdoing by lying, so he admits to being guilty, hoping to avoid further harm to himself. This is attrition. The word used to identify what the contractor did is not attrition, but, rather, contrition. Contrition is a brokenness of spirit or sorrow for sin with the intent of not sinning again. We might say that contrition is the result of internal struggle while attrition describes situations created by external circumstances.

Let’s consider these two words in relationship to the gospel. Both attrition and contrition result in faith in Jesus Christ, but one is more believable than the other.

In the Middle Ages, it was quite common for the church to preach a gospel based on attrition. Hell was a very popular subject, and much of what we think we know about hell comes from the imaginations of writers and artists and not from Scripture. Dante’s Inferno, for example is a 14th century poem which describes in great detail 10 levels of hell and/or purgatory, the most severe being the level reserved for the devil and his demons. The church used images such as these to scare people to the point that they would profess faith in Jesus Christ and commitment to the church. This kind of teaching was used as a means to encourage people to put their faith in Jesus Christ centuries ago, and it has not lost its attractiveness today. Sometimes we hear Christians saying to those who do not believe in Jesus: you don’t want to spend eternity in hell do you? Belief in Jesus becomes a means for one to escape punishment. It is a gospel of attrition, a gospel which uses the motivation of escaping hell as a way to get people to believe.

A gospel of contrition appears to be quite different. Instead of showing people a vision of what hell could be and offering them a means of escape, a gospel of contrition reveals to people a holy, powerful, just, loving and gracious God who we have offended with our sin. Instead of emphasizing the consequences of remaining steeped in sin (a one-way ticket to hell), the presenter of the gospel talks about God’s love and grace for this world, love and grace shown to us in spite of our sin, and it calls people to repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ who came to this world to die for us (the ultimate act of grace) so that we could be restored to God.

Which method of evangelism is better? We might be pragmatic and say that it doesn’t matter too much, as long as people put their faith in Jesus Christ. There is some truth to that. But just as we might be a little skeptical about someone’s repentance when they are sorrowful only when caught, so we might be skeptical about whether someone truly believes in Jesus or if they are merely trying to avoid eternity in hell or gain a life of bliss in heaven. While we shouldn’t question anyone’s profession of Jesus, regardless of why they professed, it is harder to believe that a faith based on attrition is real. It sounds too much like they could have faith only because they are looking after themselves and their own eternal wellbeing.

On the other hand, when someone comes to faith because of who God is and responds to his grace and love, their faith seems much more credible. As a way of comparison, we might know a beautiful young woman who married a rather ugly guy who happened to be very rich, and we would question her motives. On the other hand, we can believe it is true love when a beautiful young woman marries an ugly poor guy. Why else would she want to spend the rest of her life with him? In the same way, when someone puts their faith in Jesus Christ because of who he is even without fully knowing the benefits we receive from him, we can believe that they believe because they truly love Jesus.

This may be reflected in our motivations for how we behave as well. If we obey God’s commands because we are afraid of what might happen to us, we are obeying out of fear. If, on the other hand, we live obedient lives because we know God and his grace and love for us, we are obeying out of love. Being fearful of God and loving God might result in the very same behaviour, but the reasons behind that behaviour are vastly different.

Several times in the last years people have commented to me that pastors don’t often speak of hell from the pulpit. There may be good reason for that, for we want to avoid a gospel of attrition wherein we scare people into believing and, instead, preach a gospel of contrition where people come to know their sin and see it in the light of God’s grace and love, and fall before him in faith because of who he is and what he has done. The gospel of contrition tends to last while the gospel of attrition needs to be reinforced. To continue to mention hell as a punishment (or heaven as a reward) is to rely on a gospel of attrition. To preach Christ crucified is to bring people to Christ because of who Christ is. It is quite likely that someone who comes to faith because of contrition would believe even if there was no such thing as hell or heaven. They would believe simply because of who God is, with no regard for their own wellbeing.

True, pastors may need to mention hell more often. We cannot avoid this biblical topic. But should hell (or heaven) be mentioned as a way to motivate people to correct behaviour and move them to faith? There may be a place for that, but it does seem that the gospel of contrition is more effective and perhaps even more biblical.

Attrition versus Contrition: In attrition, we regret sin and seek God primarily from a perspective of fear for our fate: eternal loss of God is, obviously, existential failure, while eternal Beatitude is existential fulfillment. In contrition, we regret sin and seek God primarily from a perspective of love for God: sin is ingratitude to God, whom one “should (and wants to) love above all things.”

~ Pastor Gary ~


Mirroring God

Our mirrors today are so well-crafted that they reflect, almost without a flaw, whatever is before them. There are two things that can change the image that is reflected from a mirror: the mirror becomes distorted or broken in some way, or the image before the mirror changes.

In Genesis 1, we learn that when God created humankind, male and female, in his image. Of course, God is invisible, but when he created us, he created us to be an image of himself. In a sense, at creation humanity was a reflection of God. (We could spend a lot of time reviewing all that has been said about the image of God and what it is that we reflect, but that goes far beyond the point of this blog.) Again, God created human beings in such a way that we were meant to reflect his image. God meant himself to be seen in his image bearers.

We do not have to read much further into Genesis to discover that the image that we reflect has become distorted. A mirror that is smashed into hundreds of pieces still reflects that which is before it, but it does so improperly. Likewise, a mirror that has become warped will reflect an image, but the image will be distorted, often mocking that which it is meant to reflect. (We think of curved mirrors in fun houses as an example.) As image bearers of God, because of sin, we no longer faithfully reflect who God is. The images people see of God in us are broken and distorted, and although something of God may be seen in us, they can’t see what God intended to be seen had sin not entered the world.

But what if we move the mirror so that it is no longer facing God? In the Old Testament, the people began to worship other gods, the gods of the nations around them. In effect what they were doing was point themselves at something other than the Lord, and they began to reflect that image to the world. They became image bearers, not of the God who had created all things but, rather, of the gods they themselves had created. Not only was the image that they reflected distorted and broken, but it also didn’t reflect anything of our Creator God at all. What we might say, then, is that the god we worship becomes the image that others see in us. If we worship the Lord, then even though we reflect a broken image, it is still an image of the Lord. If we worship other gods, the image we project resembles the other gods.

In the second commandment, we are told that we may not make an image of any created thing for the intention of worshipping it. The commandment is broad enough to include not only images of other gods but also images of the Lord. There is good reason for this. In the Golden Calf narrative (Exodus 32ff.), the Israelites construct a statue of a calf and they proclaim that this image represented the gods (or, perhaps, God) who had brought them out of Egypt. At first it appears that they have switched gods, but in verse 5 of that same chapter, Aaron declares that there will be a “festival to the Lord,” indicating that this golden calf was probably meant to represent the Lord.

We can understand why the people would have wanted such an image. The golden calf (picture a muscular yearling bull) depicted that their God (god) had power. Already he had displayed that power when he defeated the Egyptians and freed the Israelites, but the Israelites were unsure of the future, and they wanted to be assured that the God (god) they followed would lead them onward to the Promised Land and provide them a home there after displacing those who already lived in the Land. A yearling bull (bulls were among the most powerful animals of the time) seemed to be a perfect image by which the Israelites could gain assurance. Who doesn’t want a powerful God?

But there was one thing they didn’t consider. When they made the golden calf, they were hoping to say that they would appear powerful to their enemies, that the image they reflected to the world was powerful because their God (god) was powerful. The nations would see them with their god, and they would be afraid. But the thing that they didn’t consider was this: by making God into a statue, they had also made him unresponsive. It doesn’t matter how much they prayed, sacrificed, pleaded, threatened, cajoled or otherwise tried to convince the golden calf to respond, it would remain unmoving and unresponsive. And that is not who God is.

It is because the Israelites made this image, that God begins to use a term that sticks with them through the centuries: they are stiff-necked. Stiff-necked is not stubborn, although it can be that; it is better thought of as being unresponsive. The covenant God had made with his people involved their response of service and obedience, but they were doing nothing of that. They had become like the statue of the calf, unresponsive and uncaring, refusing to be thankful to the Lord for what he had done for them. Most of the times that the phrase, “stiff-necked,” is used in the Bible, it is used in reference to the casting of the golden calf. It becomes a way for God (or his spokespeople, the prophets) to say that the people are not responding to God’s covenant as they had promised to.

As we know, the Golden Calf narrative follows upon God’s covenant with Israel in which he promised to provide for his people, as long as they heeded his voice. In building the calf, they had decided to ignore God (be stiff-necked). In not responding to God, they neglected to love God or their neighbour. They had become unresponsive to the covenant, thus rendering it null and void. It was only because our gracious God decided to keep the covenant in spite of their being stiff-necked that he did not abandon them. It is because of sin, in fact, that God the Father sent a new image-bearer to be his reflection in this world. Jesus, who is the exact image of God, became what we could not be, making God known to this broken world.

The God we worship is not unresponsive as was the golden calf. Our God not only responds to our needs when we ask him for help, but more often than not he anticipates our needs and provides for us long before we even think of asking. When it comes to our salvation, God’s, “I will save you,” came long before our “Save us.” And when it comes to daily needs, if God didn’t provide for us even before we asked, we would be a worse situation that we could imagine.

Because we worship a God who is responsive to our needs, we begin to reflect that responsiveness in the way we treat others as well. Thus, the apostles would agree that it is somewhat ludicrous for us to say that we love God while at the same time doing nothing to care for our neighbours. God’s responsiveness causes us to become responsive as well as we worship him.

Perhaps one way to determine if it is truly God that we worship is to ask this question: is the image I am presenting an image of grace, love, and provision? Or am I uncaring about the needs of others? If the latter is the case, perhaps it is not the God of the Bible that we are worshipping.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Actions Reveal Our Faith

Sometimes our actions show our faith better than our words. In fact, what we do often shows how much faith we have. Following are several examples, one from the Bible and several from our lives.

In 1 Samuel 17 we read the story about David and Goliath. In that story as David runs forward to challenge Goliath, he picks up 5 stones. Have you ever wondered why he picked up 5 stones and not just one? Did David really believe that if he missed with the first stone that Goliath would give him the chance to sling another at him? Goliath had a shield bearer who would have provided the giant with protection from any subsequent stones, so David had to knock Goliath out with the first stone, or else he would be killed.

So, why 5 stones? In 2 Sameul 21:15-22, we read that David’s mighty men fought and killed four men who were descendants of Rapha from Gath. Goliath was from Gath, and Rapha, while a proper name in verse 22, also means “giant.” It seems that when David went out to meet Goliath, he had in mind that not only would he kill Goliath, but he would also put to death his four sons. Thus, the act of picking up 5 stones was not so that he could try again if he missed the first time, but, rather, as a way of saying to Goliath, “I am so confident that God has given you into my hands that I am picking up these other stones to say that you will have no descendants.” Picking up 5 stones was David’s act of faith in the Lord.

In our times, we can also see acts of faith. Most cemeteries (but not all) are arranged in such a way that those who are buried there, should they be able to sit up, would face east. Tradition has it that Jesus, when he returns, will return from the east. When Jesus returns, Scripture teaches, those who have put their faith in him will be raised to new life, and it has become a tradition that those who die in the Lord, when they are raised to new life will see Jesus coming on the clouds. Being buried in such a way is an act of faith, faith that God will raise his children to eternal life.

This does not mean, of course, that if cemeteries are arranged differently, the designers were mocking God. Maybe they just didn’t know the tradition or maybe the topography didn’t lend itself to a different arrangement. It also doesn’t mean that those who choose cremation are dismissing the teaching of the resurrection, for one does not have to be buried in the traditional way to prove their faith. Nevertheless, those who do anticipate the resurrection might choose, as a sign of their faith, to be buried in such a way so that when they rise from the grave, the first person they will see is Jesus.

Perhaps one example that might apply to our routine decisions. As followers of Jesus Christ, we know that we are called to give of what we have to support the ministry of the church and to help others. The Bible teaches that we are to give first to the work of the Lord and then trust that God will provide for us until the next paycheque. There are many who write out their cheques to the church and to charities as soon as they receive their salary, for they are confident that as they give what they have committed themselves to give, God will provide for the rest of their needs. Those who give from what they have left over after expenses, on the other hand, might be showing that they don’t really trust the Lord to provide for their daily needs.

Perhaps you can think of other examples of how our actions show our faith more than our words. In fact, it is often the case that our actions do speak out our faith far more than our words. If we truly take God at his word, it is likely that the way we live our lives will speak our faith more strongly than our words.

A few negative examples are also helpful. Superstitions are often an unspoken display of a lack of faith or of faith in someone or something other than the Lord. Knocking on wood is a remnant of the pagan practice of summoning powerful gods who lived in trees. Avoiding walking under a ladder is a superstitious way of avoiding offending the Triune God. (The lines formed by the ladder, the ground, and the wall were thought to represent the Trinity.) Avoiding stepping on cracks is rooted in the belief that a crack in the pavement might be filled with evil forces. While we might not know the origin of these superstitious practices when we engage in them, we are revealing that perhaps our faith might not be as firmly rooted in our Lord Jesus Christ as we might profess. Even if we may not know the origin of superstitions, we know that we are doing something to gain “good luck” or avoid “bad luck.” Sometimes, our actions speak the truth of our hearts, even when we don’t intend that to happen.

When David picked up the 5 stones, he knew what he was doing. He was not confident in himself at that moment, but, rather, fully aware of his dependence on God. He was so sure that God would help him defeat Goliath that he was able to pick up 4 extra stones, stones he would never have been able to use against Goliath. His seemingly insignificant action revealed where his heart was. May it be that our actions do the same.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Sphere Sovereignty

In Matthew 22:21, we find an oft-quoted verse: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Jesus is responding to a trap that the Pharisees have set for him, either to discredit him or to have him arrested by the Roman soldiers who would have been nearby. The Pharisees asked him if it was right for a Jew to pay the imperial tax, the tax that Caesar collected from everyone in his empire. If Jesus said that it was to pay the tax, he would lose credibility with many of his fellow Jews, for they despised the Romans and hated paying the tax. On the other hand, if he said that it was not right to pay the tax, the soldiers could arrest him for sedition and anarchy. Either way, the Pharisees would accomplish their goal of having Jesus’ influence curtailed.

Jesus responded with the words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” We are told that the Pharisees were amazed, and they left him alone, at least for a while. We might ask ourselves why the Pharisees were amazed? Were they amazed that Jesus had saw their trap and had sprung it, escaping it unharmed? Were they amazed at Jesus’ cleverness? Or was their something else?

The way the Pharisees posed the question, “Should we pay the imperial tax to Caesar?” creates a line in the sand. When is it right to submit to the government and when do we cross the line? Where do we draw the line, and is it ever right to cross it? The Pharisees came from a long tradition of resisting the civil government, first the Greeks and then the Romans. Many from their tradition had chosen to die for their faith rather than do what the government demanded. They had drawn a very clear line, one that allowed for minimal submission to the government and one that should not be crossed at all. They taught that to submit to the civil government was to take a stance against God. Conversely, submitting to God was to stand against the government.

Jesus’ reply challenges the idea of there being a line which we cross. He says that we must give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Jesus’ answer is not so much a clever way to escape a trap as it is a profound way of understanding who has authority over what. Jesus, in a way, was introducing us to the teachings of Abraham Kuyper, 1800 years before Kuyper was born. Many of us have been influenced by Kuyper who taught the concept of sphere sovereignty. As we know from both the teachings of Peter (1 Peter 2:13) and Paul (Romans 13:1ff.) ruling authorities are given to us by God for our good, and it is our obligation to submit to them. Thus, when the government demands taxes, they have the right to do so, and we must pay them. When they make laws, we are obligated to obey them because they have the right to make and enforce laws. God has given governments an area of life (sphere) over which they are sovereign, and we are obligated to recognize that sovereignty. Thus, we are obligated to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

We are also obligated to give to God what is God’s. Since that is the case, then we are moved to ask the question: “What belongs to God?” The simple answer: everything. Kuyper taught that there are many spheres (areas) over which various groups/persons have been given authority. Governments have authority over their nations, home owners over their homes, children over their toys, and teachers over their classrooms. In our world there are many spheres and many authority figures, but God’s sphere includes them all. Quoting Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” In other words, every sphere of life, no matter how small or how large comes under the authority of Jesus Christ.

This is the amazing thing about Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees. He put to an end the idea that submission to the government is opposition to God. Instead, he is saying that submission to the government is submission to God. At the same time, and most importantly, every sphere of life, no matter what it is, does not exist independently but is subject to the authority of God in Jesus Christ.

The implication of this is that there is no separation of church and state, at least not as we practice it today. While we can (and should) argue that there is (and should be) a separation between government and home (each has its own sovereign sphere), and while there is and should be a separation between business and education (each has its own separate sphere), the church, as the representative of Jesus Christ, has the right to speak to every sphere of life. Even more, Christians, as ambassadors of Jesus Christ, have the obligation to speak to every sphere of life, calling it to submission to the one who is Lord of all. Because everything belongs to God, all of life must be lived in service to him and all earthly authorities must be subject to his reign by being obedient to him. What is more, all businesses, all households, all schools, all service clubs, all retirees, all medical facilities – everything that exists is obligated to submit to the overarching authority of Jesus Christ. It is the church, Christians together, who have the responsibility to make sure that every sphere knows what God asks of us.

he role of a Christian, thus, is not to say with defiance “I will not submit to your authority,” for that authority has been given by God. Rather, the Christian’s responsibility is to say, “Submit yourself to the Lord for he is sovereign over your business, home, nation, etc.” Thus, our energy is not to be used in acts of defiance and subversion but in creating opportunities to instruct and guide all spheres of life to submit to the authority of our Lord and Saviour. After all, all people everywhere are called to give to God what belongs to him. Not all are aware of that obligation and not all know how to do that. We can help others understand and so learn to live under the reign of the God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ.

~ Pastor Gary ~


King of Shame

Some years ago, I heard a sermon from the Old Testament in which the pastor read a text which says that the sun lights our way. He talked about how it was fortuitous that this word, “sun,” sounds like “son,” and he went on to draw the conclusion that this particular verse in the Bible points us to Jesus Christ who is the “Son.” Nothing that this pastor said was particularly wrong, but the way he drew his conclusions does not work in every language. It certainly doesn’t work in the Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), for the words for “son” and “sun” are very different from each other. Nor could this particular sermon be translated into French (son=fils; sun=soleil) or Spanish (son=hijo; sun=sol), although it might work in Dutch (son=zoon; sun=zon). What this pastor neglected to do was check the original languages, producing a sermon that could well have gone very wrong. When reading a passage of Scripture in English we need to be careful that we don’t make the text say something that the original languages don’t allow. In other words, let’s be careful when drawing conclusions such as the one this pastor drew.

At the same time, there are times when translations don’t necessarily reveal the wordplays found in the original languages. The Hebrew language doesn’t normally contain vowels when it is written, so to pronounce a word, one must be familiar enough with the language to be able to discern what the vowels might be. (For example, even without vowels, we can understand the following sentence even without its vowels: Jhn thrw th bll.) Originally the Hebrew Bible didn’t contain the vowels either, but at some point, Jewish scholars added vowels (which appear below the consonants), making the Bible easier to read for those who might not be adept at reading Hebrew. Most recognize that those who added the vowels were doing a degree of interpretation, although most also agree that the interpretation is the correct one. In other words, we can trust that not only the consonants constitute God’s revealed word but the vowels, which were added later are also included in that inspiration. (The scholars were very careful when they added the vowels, drawing on the wisdom and experience of hundreds of years of the work of other scholars.)

Because Hebrew didn’t have vowels originally, readers of Hebrews could add wordplays as they read the text aloud. Most people would have caught them immediately and would have appreciated what the reader was doing. Sometimes the reader would substitute the vowel pronunciation of one word into another to make a point. The example which follows shows this well.

The Hebrew consonants that are translated as “king” are “mlk”. Normally “king” is pronounced as “melek.” The Hebrew word for “shame,” when pronounced, usually uses the vowels “o” and “e.” There is an Ammonite god who the Israelites called “Molek,” sometimes written “Molech” in our English Bibles. Molek was a terrible god who people believed accepted the sacrifice of children. Thus, the letters, “mlk”, when read in reference to the Ammonite god were not pronounced “melek,” meaning king, but rather, “Molek,” meaning “shameful king” or “king of shame.” What an appropriate name for such a terrible god! The worship of Molek was the epitome of shamefulness for the Israelite people who had substituted their holy and righteous God for the Ammonite god.

We miss this play on words in the English language and even a reader of Hebrew might miss the play on words. But if the Bible was read aloud, the listeners would have not missed it. In 2 Kings 23:13, the words, “king,” and “Molek” appear in the same sentence, and we can well imagine that there was no mistaking that Molek was the “king of shame” as the reader spit that word out of his mouth as he would spit something distasteful. This is the verse where we learn that King Solomon had introduced the worship of Molek to the Israelites by building a shrine to Molek. This, by the way, was the reason that Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, did not become king of all 12 tribes of Israel, but, rather, was given reign over only two of the tribes while his rival, Jeroboam became king of the 10 northern tribes. It is as if the author if 2 Kings is almost saying that King Solomon was a little like the god he introduced, a “king of shame” as well, for it was shameful what he did. Solomon’s actions eventually led to the destruction of God’s people and their exile into Assyria (722BC) and Babylon (586BC).

It is also telling that the longing of God’s people, following the eventual destruction the kingdom of Judah (consisting of the two tribes) in 586BC and the later restoration of Israel, was for a new king, a Son of David. Solomon was not truly a Son of David, at least not in the way he led the people, for he turned them away from the Lord. The people were longing for someone like King David, who was not a king who led the people away from the Lord but, as Scripture says, was a man after God’s own heart. Years later, when Jesus was nearing the end of his earthly ministry, the people hailed him as the Son of David, not only because he descended from David, but also because he was like David in that he made it his ministry to bring the people back to the Lord. This is the kind of king that people wanted, for they had come to know what the “king of shame” had done to them.

While we may not have anything as terrible as a god like Molek, many of our leaders (political, economic, educational, and sometimes even religious) are leading us away from the Lord. We might say that they are little “Moleks,” representatives of that terrible god. The world will not do well under their reign. The Catechism says, however, that we are called “Christians,” because, paraphrasing the Catechism, we are anointed and appointed to be representatives of the Son of David, fighting against sin, offering ourselves sacrificially to the work of the Kingdom, and being representatives of Jesus Christ as we make his reign over this world known so that this world will be brought back to God. To do this well, of course, we must not follow the way so of the Molek but, rather the ways of Christ whose ways are often quite different from the ways of the world.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Joseph and Judah and their Salvation

In Genesis we read the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. This coat was not just a fancy coat but, rather, a coat which was like the coats people of royalty wore. In giving Joseph his coat, Jacob his father was saying that he had chosen Joseph to take the position of firstborn and become the next head of the household. Joseph’s brothers knew what their father was doing.

Jacob had reason for doing this. As we recall, he wanted to marry Rachel because he loved her, but he was tricked into marrying her older and less beautiful sister, Leah. He did marry Rachel a week or so later, and although the two of them deeply desired to have children, Leah was the first to bear children for Jacob so that his first four sons were sons of Leah and not Rachel. After much time, Rachel was finally blessed with a son, Joseph, and although he was younger by far than his half brothers, being the eldest son of the wife Jacob loved, Jacob wanted him to have the position of being the firstborn. Thus, Jacob gave Joseph a royal coat which signalled his choice of the one who would receive God’s promises and become head of the household. Jacob, we should note, followed through on his intentions, adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own, thus giving Joseph a double inheritance, the inheritance that the firstborn was meant to receive.

Jacob’s brothers were unhappy with their father’s choice, and they decided to eliminate Joseph, not by killing him but by selling him as a slave into Egypt. In this way they believed that they not only got rid of Jacob’s choice of heir, but they also stood to benefit themselves. They did not conceive that Joseph would survive his slavery let alone become one of the most powerful men in the world. They would never have believed that Joseph would one day hold their lives in his hands. But, as we know, God blessed Joseph and he did become the eventual saviour of his family when they were forced to turn to Egypt for food because of a famine in their own land. As the brothers bowed down to Joseph, what Jacob had desired in giving Joseph his royal coat became reality. It seemed that it would be through Joseph that God would provide the salvation for the world, a salvation he had promised to humanity in the Garden of Eden, a salvation that would be offered to the world through Abraham’s descendants. The book of Genesis ends with us believing that Joseph could be the means by which God would provide salvation, for it appeared that he was the heir to God’s promises.

But things were not as they seemed. First, as soon as we turn to Exodus, we realize that the policies Joseph had created were turned against his people. Under Joseph’s guidance, Pharaoh gave food to the people who came to him on the condition that they become his slaves. Joseph’s policies institutionalized slavery so that it became possible for the Egyptians to enslave the Israelites and use them for their own benefit. Thus, the salvation Joseph provides turns out to be no salvation at all, at least not ultimately.

There is another curious passage in the Joseph narrative that should give us pause. Even as the narrator is recounting Joseph’s story, he stops right in the middle of his account and tells us about Judah and his bad behaviour (Genesis 38). Judah, although the fourth son of Levi, had been given the position of firstborn above his three older brothers, for they had abdicated their position because of a variety of sins. In Genesis 38, Judah plays the role of unfaithfulness to the max as he unwittingly impregnates his daughter-in-law Tamar after refusing to provide a husband for her after her first two had died. He then tries to punish Tamar for her adultery until he discovers that the child that she bears is his. She gives birth to twins, and one of them, Perez, becomes the ancestor of King David and, eventually of Jesus Christ. In other words, God’s promises of salvation are not passed to Joseph, son of beloved Rachel, as Jacob wished but, rather, to sinful Judah, a son of Leah, the unloved wife.

What happened in Genesis plays out in later history. The nation of Israel survives for a while, intact, but after enjoying prosperity as a united nation under David and Solomon, it divides with the southern part being dominated by the tribe of Judah and the northern dominated by the tribe of Ephraim, Ephraim being Joseph’s son who was adopted by his grandfather, Jacob. Animosity grows between these two sons of Jacob, now powerful kingdoms, and they are regularly at war with each other. Eventually both kingdoms are destroyed, but God allows the people to return from exile, but following this, there is never any question as to whom God will use to provide salvation. The returning Israelites receive a new name, Jews, derived from Judah, and there is never any doubt that God will provide a king from among Judah’s descendants, a king who also descends from David. Following the destruction of the two kingdoms and their miraculous return to their homeland, the rivalry between the brothers has completely disappeared.

We don’t often think about this big picture when we read the story of Joseph. Truly, Joseph is the hero of the story as God uses him to provide temporary reprieve for his people so they don’t die from starvation. But it becomes clear that God does not provide salvation through a line of heroes but, rather, through a line of sinners. It would not be the way we do things. We are taught that the only way to survive is to elicit the help of someone powerful, someone who can make a difference, someone who is a lot like a superhero. The salvation that a superhero provides might look real, but that salvation, usually won by the destruction of others, often creates an environment of oppression and subjugation. God’s salvation does not come through expected means, but, rather through the least expected, but it is a salvation that is real, and it is permanent. Jesus did not come from a line of heroes; he came from a line of sinners. And he did not come to dominate others, but, rather, to give his life for them. It was in his humiliation that he was victorious.

The story of Joseph and Judah foreshadows this perfectly. Jacob had his ideas of who should be the heir of God’s promises, and he tried to manipulate history to make things work his way, but God had other ideas. It was through Judah the sinner and not Joseph the hero that salvation comes. And for that we can be thankful.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Clean and Holy

In the Bible we see words like “clean,” “unclean,” and “holy.” These words are related to each other, as is illustrated below.

Unclean versus Clean
Common / Profane
versus Holy

As we can see, the opposite of unclean is clean. If something is unclean, it is defiled in some way. The bodies of dead animals which had not been killed for meat or sacrifice, for example, were considered unclean in the Bible, and touching such a body would make one unclean as well. Skin diseases made a person unclean. Mold in a house made the building unclean. Something that was unclean could be made clean. Mold could be removed from the house or a person’s skin disease could be healed and, with the proper rituals, that which was unclean became clean.

A second set of opposites common/profane versus holy is also found in Scripture. Most of the world was considered to be common or profane. However, from time to time, something was designated to become holy and through rituals, usually involving blood sacrifice, so that which was common could be moved to the realm of holy. Objects in the temple, things like tables and censors, were considered to be holy. The temple itself was declared to be holy, with some places in it considered to be more holy than others.

The placement or location of each person or object was determined by their designation. Unclean objects and unclean people were removed from mainstream society and forced to live away from others. Thus, lepers were forced out of their homes and communities, not only to prevent transmission of their disease but also because that which was unclean was not allowed to defile that which was clean. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers, he not only gave them healing from a terrible disease, but he also made it possible for those lepers to return to their homes and communities. On the opposite end of things only those people and objects which were made holy were allowed to be present in areas which had been designated as holy. Holiness is an attribute of God, and because God’s holiness may not be contaminated by that which is common/profane, careful rules were followed to keep that which was common away from holy places. Thus, only the High Priest, who was designated as being holy through elaborate sacrifices, was allowed to enter into the presence of God in the Most Holy Place. Certainly nothing that was unclean or even clean and common could enter into a holy area, for that would be to defile holiness.

The Roman Catholic Church had adopted some of these Old Testament designations and has assigned them to parts of their buildings. A Roman Catholic church building, before it is used for worship, undergoes a ritual by which it is made holy, and certain parts are more holy than others. The altar area, the area at the front of the church, usually separated from the rest of the building by a fence or low wall of some sort, is usually considered off limits for the common person. Thus, in many Roman Catholic church buildings, only those who are so designated may enter into the altar area. All the rest come to the fence/wall, mostly to receive Christ’s body and blood during the Mass. Symbolically, Christ comes from the holy place to give himself to the common person. While we do not necessarily agree with Roman Catholic practices, this symbolism is powerful. When a Roman Catholic church building is no longer needed, it is desacralized (made common) and certain objects are removed, and a ritual is performed so that the entire building can be used for common purposes.

Protestant churches, including ours, do not consider the church building to be holy. Our buildings, while dedicated, are not especially holy although they may function to house holy gatherings (congregations of believers) and holy events (worship services). We do not believe that the church building is intrinsically different from any other building except in purpose and function. Thus, one does not need to enter into a church building and approach the altar to draw near to God. It is faulty theology to say that we are going to God’s house (implication, a holy place) on a Sunday morning to worship. It is further erroneous to sing, “We have come into your house to worship you,” and it is equally erroneous to use those same words in prayer. The church building is not a sacred place where God lives. Differing from the Old Testament practices, we do not need to offer sacrifices or undergo rituals to be allowed into the church building.

The major change, according to Scripture, is that the house of God is no longer the building; it is the people who God has called to belong to him through Jesus Christ. Essentially, we can’t go to the house of God because are the house of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are the place where God dwells on this earth, and he can do so only because we have not only been made clean but have also been made holy through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is only because of that cleansing and sanctifying (the process of becoming holy) that the Spirit can come into our lives and be among us.

This has implications, of course. As Paul says directly at least twice in 1 Corinthians, we are temples of the Holy Spirit and therefore we are to avoid becoming unclean through sinful activities. By grace alone the Holy Spirit does not remove himself from our lives and from the church when we defile ourselves, but we can imagine that our holy God must find the experience of living in the presence of willful sin to be an unpleasant one. If we take seriously that we are God’s house, we will seek to keep sin to a minimum and always ask forgiveness when we fail. By God’s grace, we have been made clean from the defilement of sin and qualified to live in God’s holy presence through sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By his grace, we become the house of God, the dwelling place of God here on this earth. We are cleaned up and made holy through Jesus so that the Holy Spirit may dwell in us and among us. Let’s work hard at becoming what we have been made in Christ Jesus, a holy people who are the temple/house of God.

~ Pastor Gary ~



I learned a new word a few days ago: specious. I was reading an article, and they talked about a particular worldview as being specious. At first, I thought perhaps that the author meant that the worldview was special or unique, but I began to sense, as I read further, that the word meant something entirely different. I had to look it up, and I discovered that specious means, “superficially plausible, but actually wrong.” In other words, something that is specious looks like it could be right but upon further study, it comes evident that it is wrong.

In the insect world we sometimes find specious species. There are a number of insects that look remarkably like leaves, so much so that we probably wouldn’t see them as insects even if we looked right at them. Of course, it only takes a second to discover that the insect is not a leaf at all. It is a specious insect because it appears to be something that it is not, and the truth can be revealed through further examination.

Examples of specious things in creation are quite wonderful, but when it comes to ideas, they can be quite dangerous. Take, for example, the idea that working seven days a week is advantageous. By working that extra day, it is argued, we can get more done, and when we get more done, we get paid more, and when we get paid more, that is to our advantage. This argument is specious on so many levels, but, from a biblical perspective, it becomes completely false. We well know that all that we have is provided to us by God. If we dispute that, consider where we live. Farmers in Canada, for example, generally are reasonably prosperous. Farmers in many places in the world are among the poorest in their countries. The reason that any of the farmers among us are doing so well is because God has placed them here in Canada and has given us the conditions favourable to good crops, markets that will buy them and prices which allow us to live and even live well. Any one of us could have been born in a different country, worked as hard or even harder than we do now and yet live on the brink of poverty. In this and many more examples, we discover that God is the one who provides for us. Thus, while we are called to work, we do not expect that it is our efforts that make us rich, but, rather, God’s blessings on those efforts. It is specious, therefore, to say that working seven days per week will be to our advantage. We could try it, but unless God provides, we could find ourselves more worn out, grumpier and even poorer than when we took a day off.

We hear all sorts of ideas that seem plausible at first but prove to be completely erroneous upon closer examination. A former prime minister (Pierre, the father of Justin) said that in matters of sexual activity what goes on in the bedroom should not be our concern. That sounds plausible. How can we say that someone’s moral decision that leads to activities that are completely hidden be our concern? Their acts don’t affect us, do they? Sounds plausible, even logical. But consider the devastating effects of the sexual revolution that has been gaining ground for the last 60 years. It is a proven fact that repeated sexual encounters without commitment result in people who cannot keep commitments. What went on in the bedroom now affects the lives of children in their living rooms and kitchens. Mr. Trudeau’s reasoning proves to be specious.

One other example: there are many parents who would say that if their teenagers are going to drink, they would prefer that they do so at home perhaps even with their friends. Thus, they provide opportunities for their underage youth to drink, sometimes heavily, and often fairly regularly. It sounds like the parents are protecting their children from harm. Isn’t it better to create a safe environment in which to drink rather than have them run the roads under the influence of alcohol? Creating a safe environment sounds like the right thing to do. But that argument, too, is specious. Many studies have shown that the undeveloped brain (brains of humans are not fully developed until the individual reaches the age of 22 or 23) is very negatively affected by alcohol, especially if the person engages in binge drinking, which is defined as 3-4 drinks per evening. Memory loss, loss of ability to make sound decisions, and a general reduction in the ability to think are seen, to one degree or another, in every person who binge drinks before their brains are fully developed. Studies show that the effects seem to last about a month, but it is uncertain if the undeveloped brain is permanently disabled when exposed to alcohol before it is fully developed. An argument that seems plausible (we are protecting our children) turns out to be false as those same children are given the opportunity to inflict temporary or perhaps permanent brain damage on themselves. This reasoning by parents is a specious as well.

What we discover is that God’s commands counteract specious reasoning. While it is not always evident how God’s ways are right, we can be assured that they are not specious. In other words, God guides us toward a particular way of living because it is good for us. Sometimes we discover why through good scientific study, but sometimes the reasoning behind those laws is unknown to us. Someday we might understand but until we do, it is better if we simply obey. But we had better make sure that if we make an argument for something that while it might sound plausible, it cannot be refuted. While we are special in God’s eyes, by his grace, we should never find ourselves to be specious.

~ Pastor Gary ~