Three ways to live

Which is your way?

On prosperity doctrine

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 7:16 pm on Thursday, August 16, 2007

Prosperity doctrine teaches that prosperity and success in business is external evidence of God’s favor. Close to it is the “Word of Faith” teaching claiming that health and prosperity are promised to all believers, and are available through faith. These teachings are quite common in Charismatic churches, but are they true?

The answer is not a simple yes or no. The difficulty lies in the fact that Old and New Testaments seem to differ on this issue. Prosperity and health have indeed been promised for the obedience of Mosaic covenant (Deut 29:9, Josh 1:7–8), while disobedience would result in no prosperity (2 Chron 24:20). Yet, the connection between prosperity and obedience has been broken many times. For example, Job’s loss of both prosperity and health was not due to his disobedience. On the other hand, many wicked disobedient people prospered (Jer 12:1–2, Ps 73:3).

This reversal is further amplified in the New Testament. Here, being rich becomes a stumbling block to accepting the message of Jesus (Lk 12:13–59). Paul does not receive healing for his thorn in the flesh, even though he asks God (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). In return for obedience, most of Jesus’ disciples were executed while spreading the gospel, rather than became rich. Overall, except for a few vague verses, there is little support for prosperity doctrine in the New Testament.

How do we make sense out of this? Did God change his mind?

No, He did not. The mistake made by the proponents of the doctrine is that they fail to see God’s actions in the Old Testament in a larger context of his character. Prosperity doctrine tries to present God as a carrot-and-stick employer who desperately wants our obedience and is willing to pay for it by making us prosper. This is an extremely shallow view. A better description would be that God wants us to love Him with all our hearts, minds and strengths and is willing to work in us through blessings and pain to achieve this goal.

Of course God wants to bless us and make us healthy. He did not originally intended a world where there is poverty and sickness – we have chosen it. Yet, in most cases giving us wealth and health will move us further away from God rather than closer to him. God’s dealing with the Jews served to demonstrate to the whole world exactly that! It is in the quiet periods of peace and prosperity they turned away from God to serve idols. Churches in NYC were completely filled up right after 9/11 because it is at the time when our idols come crashing down we finally notice God.

God is not a carrot-and-stick employer, he is a passionate lover who will do anything possible (blessings, sufferings, health, sickness) to bring us back to him.

Can we be good?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:55 pm on Thursday, August 16, 2007

C.S. Lewis gives an answer in his “Mere Christianity”:

I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at the first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Every one there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes.

Additional thoughts on the gospel

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:52 am on Thursday, August 16, 2007

My earlier post on the meaning of the gospel, “What is the gospel?“, turned out to be quite detailed and complicated. Here is a shortened version where I only highlight five main principles.

1. Main distinguishing factor. The gospel is primarily about what Jesus has done, not what he has taught. Other religions are based on what their founders taught. Christianity is based on what its founder did. Take away Jesus, and there will be no more Christianity.
2. Why did he do it? You are so bad that Jesus had to die for you. There is nothing you could have done yourself, no matter how hard you try. You cannot be good and righteous on your own. Jesus had to die for you and now the Spirit of God is working within you to make you good.
3. Did he do it reluctantly? Not at all! You are so loved he wanted to die for you.
4. How do we receive it? God declares you righteous (accepts you) when you acknowledge your spiritual bankruptcy and accept the sacrifice of Jesus as a gift.
5. The foolishness of the gospel. The gospel is a complete reversal of world’s values. In the world you are accepted when you bring in something of value. But in the gospel, you don’t get accepted by saying I lived a good life, you are accepted by acknowledging your spiritual bankruptcy. Gospel’s salvation is achieved through the reversal of values also. Jesus, God and king of the world, chose to come in weakness not in power.

Discovering original meaning of the biblical words

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:49 pm on Tuesday, August 14, 2007

My last post on the meaning of the word “abundant” in John 10:10 may give an impression that we cannot trust English translations of the Bible. This is certainly not the case. While you can get better insights if you know Hebrew or Greek, most established English translations are doing excellent job at conveying the original intended meaning.

But what do you do in those special cases when the meaning is unclear. Here are some tips:

1) Use a Greek (Hebrew) dictionary to study the meaning of the underlying word in its original form. In my experience, this approach in the wrong hands is quite dangerous. The problem is that dictionary will list all possible meanings of the word with little help to decide which one should be applied in your case. The Greek word “zoe” can mean “physical life” and “eternal life”. How do you decide between the two?
2) Check the meaning in a study bible or a commentary. This, again, could be quite dangerous, as people who write study bible notes and commentaries usually have some theological bias and hence might favor an interpretation that better agrees with their theology. For example, “Spirit-filled Life Study Bible” is a charismatic production and hence will favor charismatic interpretation. The only way to guard against bias is to own several commentaries and check them all – very time consuming. For my typical bible study preparation I check with about 5-6 commentaries.
3) Better approach – examine the context. Context is what helps us to narrow the meaning of the word. Start from immediate context – verses that surround the one you study. For example, the emphasis of John 10:1-18 is on Jesus laying down his life to give us life. Do you really think that Jesus died so you can have more money or more comfortable life? He died to give us eternal life.

If that is not convincing enough, examine larger context of the whole book of John, the gospels, all New Testament, the whole Bible – in this order. The reason to follow the order is because the narrower the context the more likely you to get a correct interpretation. While Old Testament has a few passages that could be interpreted as promises of better physical life in return of obedience, what we see in the Gospels is that Jesus says that serving money and possessions is opposite to serving God. Jesus promises us not a more comfortable life but persecutions in his name.

4) Even better approach – examine context with an Englishman concordance. The concordance reveals all locations in the bible where the underlying Greek or Hebrew word appears (without giving you the definition of this word). By seeing how the word was translated in other places, you can get a much better feel for the meaning. Try to limit your search to the books written by the same author, if possible. Different authors may emphasize on different aspects of the meaning.

Here is the concordance report (all occurrences of the word “zoe” in the book of John) generated with Logos Bible software:

John 1:4 In him was life, and the life was the light of
In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
John 3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
John 3:16 in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; • whoever does not obey the Son shall
does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on
John 4:14 a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John 4:36 is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice
John 5:24 and believes him who sent me has eternal life. • He does not come into judgment, but
into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
John 5:26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the
he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.
John 5:29 who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to
John 5:39 you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness
John 5:40 to come to me that you may have life.
John 6:27 but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give
John 6:33 he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
John 6:35 said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger,
John 6:40 Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on
John 6:47 I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
John 6:48 I am the bread of life.
John 6:51 the bread • that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:53 Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
John 6:54 my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on
John 6:63 I have spoken to you are spirit and • life.
John 6:68 we go? You have the words of eternal life,
John 8:12 in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
John 10:10 and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
John 10:28 I give them eternal life, and they will never * perish, and no
John 11:25 to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die,
John 12:25 in this world will keep it for eternal life.
John 12:50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as
John 14:6 am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except
John 17:2 him authority over all flesh, to give • eternal life to all whom you have given him.
John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true
John 20:31 God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

What does it mean to have an abundant life?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:56 am on Monday, August 13, 2007

One of our group member asked me to clarify the meaning of the word “abundant” in John 10:10.

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

The underlying Greek word, perissos, means “extraordinary” (not usually encountered) or “abundant”, “more than enough” (e.g. extraordinary in the amount). However, it is not clear whether the word is used in physical or spiritual sense. To understand this we need to look at the word “life” in the same verse. The underlying Greek word is “zoe”, which can mean both physical life and eternal (spiritual) life. The second meaning is much more common in the New Testament; in particular, John uses “zoe” more than 30 times always to mean “eternal life”.

When Jesus speaks of abundant life, he means eternal life, not the physical life. Neither Jesus nor his followers had any abundance in the physical sense. Yet Jesus promised us abundant water supply that will never stop (John 4:14), more than enough bread (=Jesus’ body) that we will never go hungry again (John 6:35).

Summary of study: Hosea 2 & 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:34 am on Saturday, August 11, 2007

(click on image above to enlarge)

Main points

1. The main theme of Hosea 2 is God confronting the unfaithfulness of Israel, symbolically expressed as a failed marriage. God curses Israel for her unfaithfulness by stripping her naked, taking away the harvest of the field etc…. However, restoration is also mentioned where the relationship is reconciled, the vineyards will be returned etc…

2. The curses and restoration that Israel has received are similar to those promised by Moses for breaking the Sinai covenant.

Blessings if obey: Deuteronomy 28:11-13 (NIV).

Curses if disobey: Deuteronomy 28:18, Deuteronomy 28:24-25, Deuteronomy 28:38-40

Restoration: Deuteronomy 30:1-10

3. In taking away rain, food, pleasures, protection, God seems to be severing Israel’s ties with its idols, such as Baal. In doing so, he is showing them that He is the actual source of these blessings.

4. Hosea 2:14-3:5 talks about reconciliation with the unfaithful wife which symbolizes God’s restoring Israel. Some aspects of the restoration are simply reversals of the curses – return water to the land, give back the vineyards, remarriage. We can say that these have been at least partially fulfilled when Jews returned from exile. Other aspects, such as peace with animals and no wars, have not happened yet. So the prophecy is clearly looking into the future.

Application.

1. What does idolatry mean?

As part of the 10 Commandments given to Israel through Moses on Mt Sinai, God’s first 2 apparent commands were:

i. You shall have no other gods before me
ii. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;

While idolatry in the OT appears to mean making an actual physical image of God and worshipping it, Paul widens the meaning of idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5) to include greed (or service of money god).

As such, idolatry could mean putting anything, money, career, even family, above God. Anything that that we worship and serve can become our god.

2. From this passage we can see how God tried to solve the problem of idolatry in the OT. How do you think he might try to solve it in our lives?

Probably the same way, by cutting our connections with the idols.

If your career became an idol and you serve it to get recognition and financial stability, God may make you lose your job to remind you who is really in charge of your finances and recognition. You may have made an idol of relationship. Any time you want something too much and cannot get it, it does not necessarily mean it’s bad in itself. It’s possible that God simply does not want you to make an idol out of it.

3. So, do we just wait and see until God removes the idols from us? What can we do to change?

a. Discover what your idols are. An idol maybe something that takes too much of you time, effort, money to sustain. It might become your Lord – being able to command you what to do, how to use your time, money. Finally, an idol could be something that you really afraid to lose.
b. Recognize that if you simply try to get rid of idols, they tend to come back or be replaced with something else. As Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish mathematician and a leader of the Free Church of Scotland, puts it, “Heart’s desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some object or other, this is unconquerable”.
c. Instead of allowing this, fill your hearts with the pleasures of God and beauty of the gospel. The reason our hearts turn to other objects of beauty and satisfaction is because we do not find satisfaction and pleasure in Jesus Christ. Meditate on what gave the joy to John the Baptist when his life and ministry started to crumble (John 3:26-30).

2 sides of the same coin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 10:06 pm on Friday, August 10, 2007

This is the title of a video series by CrossTV, on the meaning of the salvation by grace. From what I’ve seen I think these guys did a very good job explaining this seemingly simple yet extremely deep concept. Below is a short excerpt:

On the pleasures of God, John Piper and C.S. Lewis

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:58 am on Friday, August 10, 2007

John Piper, a famous preacher and prolific book writer, made it his life goal to teach people about what he calls Christian Hedonism, or simply the way to find ultimate pleasure and satisfaction in God. A very nice summary of his teaching can be found in the following excerpt from “The Weight of Glory“, a famous essay by C.S. Lewis.

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love.

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

You can learn more about John Piper’s teaching from his website, Desiring God.

What are the Ten Commandments?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 9:57 am on Thursday, August 9, 2007

I was reviewing the Ten Commandments and came across this entry from Wikipedia. What it says, to my surprise, is that the precise definition of Ten Commandments depends on which denomination you belong to. The passages of reference, Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, actually contain 14-15 imperative statements, yet the Bible itself talks about commandments been 10, as in Exodus 34:28. So it is no surprise that denominations have chosen to slice the original statements differently.

By far the most difference lies in whether Exodus 20:3-4 is treated as one commandment (Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran) or two (Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox). Treating them as one basically extends the meaning of idolatry from just making an image of an idol and worshiping it (verse 4) to much more general idea of having other gods before the God of Jews (verse 3). On the other hand, if the commands are separated , idolatry can be interpreted in much more narrow sense.

Regardless of which partition you accept, I think it is quite clear that making and worshiping a physical idol also violates the command of not having other gods before God. Hence, extending the meaning of the term “idolatry” to “having other gods before God” is reasonable.

This decision has many other implications. Martin Luther has long ago noticed that commandments 2-10 are all subordinate of the first commandment. In other words, you cannot break commandment X (where X=2-10) unless you have already broken commandment 1. You do not commit adultery unless something in your life (e.g. physical pleasure) has become more important to you than God. You do not bear false witness unless something in your life (e.g. status, reputation, money) has become more important to you than God. Basically, almost everything wrong that we can do ultimately stems from treating something else more important than God and hence is idolatry.

Racism – its causes and cures

Filed under: Uncategorized — Vitali at 6:44 pm on Tuesday, August 7, 2007

One of the readers of my blog asked me to give an opinion on racism.

From Merriam-Webster Dictionary, racism is a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

Governments in most developed countries have made a very good job at sweeping this problem under the carpet. The most common solution used is the suggestion to avoid negative judgments about other races. As a result, on the surface we all smile and say nice things, but deep inside there is not much change.

The fact is that we cannot avoid making negative judgments. If we think something is bad, it’s difficult for us to pretend that it’s not. I would like to suggest that racism is not caused by negative judgments (which are unavoidable), but the following two reasons:

  1. We mistake race for culture
  2. We mistake abilities for identity

Let me elaborate. Cultural setting has an enormous influence of how we think or behave, and even what abilities we have. But we should not tie this to the race. For example, many Russians are very strong in science, due to great encouragement and support from Russian culture; it has nothing to do with Russian genes. On the other hand, Russia has very poor service sector, which is again a product of long exposure to communism, rather than genes. How can you be sure it’s the culture, not the genes? Bring up a child in a different cultural setting, and he will hardly be any different from other children in the same settings.

However, seeing the difference between culture and race is not enough. Some can still say, “OK, our race is not superior to theirs, I admit. But doesn’t the fact that our culture is superior makes us better people? If these people were as good as we are, they would have been able to build a culture just as good as ours”. This belief stems from mistaking our ability for identity. Very often seeing poor people and noticing our better education or better job or better house makes us feel we are better people. Wrong! What would you have become if you have been brought up in the same family, were given the same food, housing, and education as this poor person? Do you think you would do as well? The truth is our achievements are primarily due to our luck of being born in a family that enabled them.

What then remains of racism? There could be, what I call “superior” or “inferior” cultures, at least in some aspects. But there is no such thing as “superior” or “inferior” races, or “superior” or “inferior” people. Our perceived “superiority” is often due to being born to a good family or hard work of our forefathers, rather than our own achievement.

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