I Thank God for Men and Women Like Dr. Brantley

Dr. Kent Brantly and his family moved to the West African nation of Liberia to serve two years as a medical missionary with Samaritan’s Purse. He said when they went there, “Ebola was not on the radar. We moved to Liberia because God called us to serve the people of Liberia.” When the Ebola outbreak was discovered he sent his wife and family home, but stayed to help battle the coming pandemic.

While helping to alleviate the suffering and rendering life-saving treatment he fell victim to the virus himself. Samaritan’s purse had him flown back to America where he was given an experimental drug, Zmapp, and he recovered. In a statement after his ordeal Dr. Brantly said, in part, “I am forever thankful to God for sparing my life…Please continue to pray for Liberia and the people of West Africa.”

Writing for the Huffington Post, Steve McSwain admits Dr. Brantly’s example is, “Genuinely inspiring.” But he goes on to criticize the kind of theology that claims Dr. Brantly was spared, but allowed 1200 Africans to die. He asks, “Why were you spared but they were not?” McSwain thinks it is wrong to continue, “crediting God when good fortune comes our way.”

I agree the existence of evil defies logic, but the rationale that would credit “good fortune” for Dr. Brantly’s recovery is as ridiculous to me as crediting God is to McSwain. Besides, Dr. Brantly was not the only one spared. Thanks to Dr. Brantly and others many that would have died were saved.

Our first parents were warned about eating the fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” They chose to ignore God and desired to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” Knowledge is not acquired by mere intellect but is further informed by experience. Adam and Eve did not understand the full extent of evil until they experienced their firstborn son murdering their second born son.

Each successive generation has been reminded of the knowledge of evil by what we experience. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is an example of the senselessness of evil.

Before I embrace a do-nothing cynicism, I will applaud and support the faith-filled actions of those like Dr. Brantly who do not ignore the existence of evil, but labor to stem its effect; who do not offer empty laments for those who died, but rejoice in those they were able to save.

Many will whine from the relative safety and comfort of America about the faith of those who pray and put their lives on the line for what they believe, but I’m going with Dr. Brantly on this one. I thank God for those who because of their faith suffer privations and risk their lives to serve others. I thank God for men and women like Dr. Brantly.

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Some Brief Thoughts on Biblical Interpretation

Doctrinal disputes leave many conscientious Christians wondering what to believe. Disagreements seldom arise over the translations of the ancient texts and the various modern versions of the Scriptures. Theological differences typically flow from divergent interpretations. The following guidelines are offered to help those who want to study and understand the Bible better.

We should strive to interpret the Scriptures objectively and not subject them to our own personal views or experiences (or lack of experience). This is what Peter is getting at when he writes that God’s Word is not “a matter of one’s own interpretation,” 2 Peter 1:20. Each passage in the Bible has only one explanation, but the theological principle contained in that explanation could have many applications.

Like any writing, the Bible employs a variety of literary forms and grammatical tools to reveal God’s truth to man. God’s simple truth for the most part is disclosed in plain, easy to understand words. The meaning of the word “literal” is often misused; I prefer the word “plain.” When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world,” he was not saying Jesus was a literal lamb, but was plainly using a metaphor to reveal that Jesus would be our literal sacrifice for sin.

Grammar plays an important role in grasping the meaning of the text. Semantics, the meaning of words, and syntax, how they are placed in a sentence to communicate meaning, cannot be ignored. The Bible is made up of words, and what those words mean and how they relate to one another is vital.

Historical insight into the times, customs, and politics in which the human author wrote are an invaluable tool into learning why God inspired a particular author to write what he did. Understanding the cultural context of the biblical writer enables us to see the issue God wanted to address then, so we can know how to apply His Word now. Since the Bible is meant for the world, it must be understood within the culture it was written so it can be applied to similar situations in all cultures.

Apprehending the context of the subject of a passage is crucial also. The clarity of a passage lies within the context of the specific text, and since God does not contradict Himself, any proper interpretation must be in harmony with what the Bible says about the same subject elsewhere.

The Scriptures were not inspired and preserved merely to convey information, but to promote transformation. Ergo, any true interpretation of the Bible will have a practical, everyday application on what we think, believe, and do. Any interpretation of the Word of God that does not have a practical application for today is not to be trusted.

The Bible was not intended to be just believed, but to be lived.

Suicide: A Biblical Perspective

The recent death of Robin Williams has brought the subject of suicide to center stage. Depressed and feeling alone, Williams apparently hung himself.

Few of us are untouched by such tragedy. I have had family and friends who have ended their own lives, and there are those we hear about or read about. What was once a rare event seems to be happening more, and it makes one wonder. The subject itself stirs the emotions, especially when it affects someone we are close to, making it difficult to think about it clearly.

People take their own lives for different reasons. Some suffer from chronic, debilitating pain from injury or disease for which there is no remedy and they seek relief. Others feel they have failed those they love, or think they cannot face a sudden reversal of fortune. Some experience deep depression from failed relationships, chemical imbalances, and some depression is rooted in spiritual conflict.

There are some who say anyone who takes his or her own life is damned, but I am reticent to agree. Typically suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but I can see where someone in the grip of profound pain, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual, may be deceived and driven into thinking death is the only option.

The Scriptures record only a handful of instances of those who die by their own hand, and the subject is not addressed directly anywhere in the Bible. But that does not mean we are left completely in the dark.

While suicide is not an act of faith, and is a product of sin, it is not necessarily damnable, because we have a merciful and understanding God. Hell is not the default destination, but neither can we say heaven is assured to the one who takes his own life. So where does that leave us?

After God reveals to Abraham He is about to investigate the outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham, possibly aware his nephew Lot and his family reside in Sodom, asks God, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham employing a rhetorical question assures God he knows He will do what is right, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

The Judge of all the earth is the God who knows the hearts of all men. Those who take their own lives have crossed into eternity, and there is nothing we can say or do to help or hurt them. Their fate will not be determined by what you or I think, or believe, or do. They are now in the hands of the Holy One who fully understands all the factors involved in each decision and will do what is right for each. I am comforted and confident in knowing He is the final Judge who will always do what is just.

That Would Be Unreasonable

Gungor is a band that has been nominated for a Grammy and is a Dove award-winner for its music. A Baptist church recently cancelled an appearance by the band because of some views expressed by Michael Gungor, founder and lead singer. He has said, “No reasonable person takes the entire Bible completely literally.” That raised some hackles.

Michael has made several contradictory statements that have generated more heat than light and embroiled him in the current controversy. He said he believes in the existence of God, that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Scriptures are inspired by God. But he continues by saying he does not believe “the first people on earth were a couple named Adam and Eve” or “there was a flood that covered all the highest mountains of the world.”

Michael claims that although the accounts in the book of Genesis are myths they are still useful for “teaching and edification.” He goes on to state, “From what I know of Christians, a lot of us don’t take these things literally.” Michael dazzles us with an example of his exegetical brilliance when he says, “The Bible says God is a rock. Do you take that literally?”

Well Michael, yes, I take it literally when the psalmist writes, “Who is a rock, except our God,” Psalm 18:31. Not that God is a rock, but just as a rock is stable, immovable and unchanging; God is reliable, steadfast, and immutable. I would think as a songwriter you would understand the concept of using a metaphor to convey literal truth.

He may think the account of Adam and Eve, and the Noah narrative are myths and doubt their historical authenticity, but Jesus didn’t. When questioned about divorce Jesus defends his position by referring to the pattern set by the first couple, Matthew 19:1-6, and declares His return will be “just like the days of Noah,” Matthew 24:37. Jesus did not base His example of marriage and the description of His future return on myths.

Michael has some questions about certain biblical accounts and believing there are no valid answers he doubts them as being true. I have some of the same questions, but I am unaware of any valid arguments that discredit the biblical record. Since past events such as creation, the flood, and miraculous accounts are beyond the scope of scientific observation to either prove or disprove, I accept them by faith.

Myth by definition is an imaginary story with no basis in reality. Michael would have us believe God inspired falsehoods, and these falsehoods taught by Jesus are useful. He says we are unreasonable because we do not swallow such absurdities.

I would have cancelled Michael also, not because his music is unbiblical, but because he might quit singing and start speaking, and that would be unreasonable.

We Must Obey God Rather Than Men

The atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming the Internal Revenue Service does not have a policy for enforcing the Johnson Amendment. Enacted in 1954 the Johnson Amendment prohibits non-profit organizations such as churches from engaging in certain political activities at the expense of loosing their tax-exempt status.

The court has not issued a final ruling, but it is reported the FFRF has reached a settlement with the IRS. The IRS has supposedly agreed to investigate the political activities of churches once the dust settles over its most recent scandal of targeting Tea Party supporters for auditing. I guess it is not a violation of the Johnson Amendment for the FFRF, which is a non-profit organization itself, to use its funds to file a lawsuit to influence the policy-making of a federal agency.

This agreement between the FFRF and the IRS has caught the attention of the Alliance Defending Freedom. Since 2008 the ADF has sponsored Pulpit Freedom Sunday encouraging pastors to violate the Johnson Amendment. Apparently the strategy of the ADF is to prompt a suit to test the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment against the freedoms of religion and speech in the First Amendment.

My first thought is how ridiculous this action by the FFRF is. Its website claims it is “the nation’s largest association of freethinkers.” Yet they expend a lot of energy and money to limit the freedom of those who think it reasonable to believe in an intelligent Designer. Why do they feel threatened by those who believe in a God they claim does not exist?

There are some issues that need to be addressed here. I am opposed to any church using the tithes and offerings given for spreading the Gospel to advance the election of any politician, or any group’s political agenda. God’s people give in good faith to support the cause of Christ, not some political action committee.

I do not use my position as a pastor to make political endorsements. Billy Graham supported Richard Nixon throughout the Watergate affair, until, in the face of mounting evidence of his guilt, Nixon resigned the Presidency. I do not wish to make the same mistake.

But I also recognize there are a number of moral and social issues that overlap into the political arena, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom, to name a few. I reserve the right under the Constitution, and more than that, the responsibility before God, to address these issues.

I am not concerned with the FFRF bullying the IRS to bully pastors and churches, nor do I need to be goaded by the ADF to address issues of biblical certitude, or defend me when I do. My response is the same as when Peter and the apostles were threatened to be silent, “We must obey God rather than men,” Acts 5:29.