Many people find certain parts of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, abhorrent for their description of violence. What kind of God would claim to be good and loving but then order the killing of hundreds of thousands of people? Such a God is not good at all, these folks conclude. And who can blame them?

In Deuteronomy 7 God commands the Israelites to invade Palestine and kill everyone that lives there. “When YHWH your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations…and when YHWH your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.” What the heck, God?

This is a difficult statement for many. How can a loving God order a genocide? How can this be in the Bible? How does this square with what I know about God through Jesus Christ?

The answer to these difficult questions, I believe, goes beyond the fact that Israel had been promised that land by God or that war was inevitable in those days (and still is today). No, the answer is that God hates idolatry. Idolatry, the worship of gods who are not God, is a fundamental and vile betrayal of your relationship with the God who made you. Idolatry is the door by which sin, evil, and wickedness enter the world. The more idolatry, the more wickedness.

Why? Because of the nature of the gods we worship. These are gods that have no concern for humanity. The pagan myths bear this out. The ancient gods were like horrible, shallow, vindictive humans with divine powers. They were the worst of us. Idolatry is dehumanizing. Idolatry undoes all that God is trying to do in the world. The gods are fundamentally opposed to God.

Therefore, as far as God is concerned, it is better for you to die than to live as an idolator. To be an idol-worshipper is to invite wickedness into the world, and to undo the work of redemption that God is trying to accomplish. Deuteronomy 9 says this: “After YHWH your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘YHWH has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that YHWH is going to drive them out before you.” Their wickedness stems from their idolatry.

You may not bow down to idols of wood or stone, but you have functional gods in your heart that are not the true God. They are, in fact, the same gods the ancients worshipped, but we have depersonified them, turning them into abstract concepts: Fame, Money, Power, Sex. What a trick the Enlightenment has played on us! But we are idolators, all of us, and you would do well to examine the desires of your heart to discover your own functional gods.

The people living in Canaan were killed because they were idolators, and their idolatry led them into wickedness. Idolatry always leads us into wickedness. You will find yourself doing things you never imagined to pursue the idols of your heart: Money, Fame, Sex, Power. You will invite great wickedness into your world in the pursuit of your idols–so much wickedness, in fact, that if you were to recover your right mind, you would look back and confess that it would have been better for you to die than to live as an idolator.

What is the Church supposed to do? What is the mission of the Church? What are the tasks God has given her to accomplish? Why do churches exist? What is the point of going to church?

Have you ever asked those questions? Lots of Christians don’t have a compelling reason to go to church or a clear understanding of what the church’s mission is. Many people go to church simply because that’s what they’ve always done. For ministers, the Sunday-to-Sunday grind has a way of making us forget why the Church exists and what she is supposed to do.

Do you go to church? If so, do you know why your church exists? Do you have a clear sense of what your church does and why it’s so important? Do you see how you are a part of your church’s mission, and do you participate in achieving that mission?

Jesus gave the church a mission after his resurrection. It’s recorded in several places in the Gospels, but perhaps Matthew records it best: Go and make disciples of all nations… The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus. So how’s your church doing with that? Is that the mission of your church? Is that what you’re becoming? Is that what you’re participating in?

The point of church is to make you a disciple of Jesus. Everything about church should be centered around Jesus. If he’s not at the center, it’s not a church, it’s a pagan temple. Everything the church does should be with the aim of making disciples, that is, preaching the gospel to those who haven’t heard it (evangelism), and helping those who have heard the gospel live it well (edification).

I’d love to hear how your church is doing. What are some creative ways that your church is making disciples? How have you been invited to participate in that process? What could your church do to more effectively evangelize nonChristians and edify Christians? Please leave a comment!

After the killing of Osama bin Laden, N.T. Wright, one of my heroes, offered up a scathing indictment of the operation and U.S. foreign policy, in general. He wrote about the self-serving nature of American Exceptionalism and compared us to a character in our cultural mythology, The Lone Ranger.

I love N.T. Wright, and I’ve learned more from reading his books than anyone else…but, and I say this reluctantly, I’m going to have to disagree with him. He concludes his article with this sentence:

And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?

First of all, not to get nitpicky, but I don’t think “the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth.” The book of Revelation seems to indicate that the God of ultimate justice and truth will be fully and finally revealed at the wedding of Jesus and the Church. This will be when the Father himself comes and dwells among his people, thus fully and finally revealing himself directly to those who love and worship him.

What I really want to get to, though, is this business of loving your enemy. Jesus said, in Matthew 5:43-45a, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love [agape] your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

The relevant question in this discussion is this: Does Jesus’ command to Love Your Enemies apply to nation-states? To apply this to our current situation, does Jesus’ command obligate America, as a political entity, to love Osama bin Laden? And now we have another question: Does this command to love, by its nature, rule out physical punishment as a response to physical aggression? Does Jesus’ command impel America, again, as a political and national entity, to refrain from killing Osama bin Laden?

My answer to the first question is No, sort of. This command is found in the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus delivered to his disciples, who were all first-century Jews living in Palestine under the occupation of the pagan, Gentile Romans. This particular period of Jewish history was a hotbed for revolutionary activity, and saw many would-be Messiahs take on Rome through violent means, and fail. These false Messiahs, belonging to a larger group called the Zealots, were trying to usher in the kingdom of God through violent force. As N.T. Wright says elsewhere, they were trying to achieve a military victory over the pagan Gentiles that would symbolize the theological victory of good over evil. Jesus’ command to Love Your Enemies was a direct assault on the Zealots’ way of ushering in the kingdom. In essence, Jesus is saying the kingdom of God comes about by laying down your life, not by taking up your sword.

It’s important to remember that Jesus is talking to his Jewish disciples, not to the Roman occupiers. The Jewish temptation was to create a sovereign political state and call that the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God is neither political nor national (Hence, Jesus’ refusal to be crowned king in John 6); it is suprapolitical and transnational. The kingdom of God consists across and within the nations, and it goes far beyond politics.

The presence of the kingdom of God, however, does not make nation-states or governmental authorities obsolete. In fact, Revelation 21 seems to indicate that, even after the end, when God comes to fully and finally reveal himself by dwelling with his people, there are still other nations on the earth. Moreover, texts like Romans 13 indicate that God has ordained governmental powers for the sake of maintaining order and justice on earth.

There is nothing in the text of Matthew 5 to indicate that Love Your Enemies applies to nation-states or human governments. The word we translate enemies in Matthew 5:44 could just as easily (though more cumbersomely) be translated those who hate you. The relationship Jesus has in mind, as I see it, is interpersonal, not national. Return hate with love; that is the way of the kingdom of God. But because the kingdom of God is neither a political nor a national entity, this command does not apply in the same way to nation-states.

Let me put it this way: If someone were to strike me, I would turn my other cheek to them; but if that same person were to strike my child or wife (assuming this person is an adult male), I would open up a very particular can on them. Just as my primary obligation, in this instance, is to defend my wife and children, so the primary obligation of government leaders is to protect the citizens and residents of that particular country. Love Your Enemies is not a command that overrides all other commands and responsibilities. It is a part of the means by which we usher in the kingdom of God, but there are times when it can be taken to extremes and do precisely the opposite of what it was intended. Therefore, my answer to the second question above is a hearty No.

My friend, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. His murderer was killed shortly thereafter in a firefight with other police officers. This was right. This was just.

Osama bin Laden masterminded a cowardly attack against unsuspecting civilians using proxy assassins, and then hid for 10 years in the rugged mountains of central Asia. He was apprehended and killed in a firefight with American military forces. This was right. This was just. In this instance, Jesus’ command to Love Your Enemies was superseded by the responsibilities of the President (these responsibilities, according to Romans 13, come from God) to protect America’s citizens and enact justice, in this case with the metaphorical sword.

This post has been long, I know, but I have tried to deal seriously with what N.T. Wright said we Americans haven’t dealt seriously in the death of OBL–Jesus’ command to Love Your Enemies.

Christianity has been all over the news the past couple of days because of Harold Camping’s misguided Rapture prediction. While few people ascribe to Camping’s sort of biblical numerology, this episode got me thinking about the way many Christians read the Bible. I’ve long felt that, despite the prevalence of Bible translations and Bible-study aids, the Church is functionally biblically illiterate. We simply don’t know how to read the Bible well.

In their landmark book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart offer up a time-tested, God-honoring approach to Bible reading and study. While the book is full of helpful insights, there is one that stands out to me amidst the flurry of Rapture theology and end times predictions: The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. In other words, the meaning of Scripture does not change with shifting cultural pretensions. God does not change the meaning of his word for your sake.

The Bible was God’s word to someone else long before it was God’s word for you. The Bible was not written to you; it was written to an altogether different group of people who lived and loved and argued and fought and died long before you were ever born. This means that, in order to discover the meaning of Scripture, we must approach it with respect for the original audience. If we are to be faithful to Scripture, we have to learn to read it historically. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. You are not allowed to redefine God’s word based on the issues of your particular time and place.

This has a wide array of implications. Specifically, this means that Genesis 1 was not written to answer the challenge of Charles Darwin. This means that the book of Revelation was written with Rome in mind, not the United Nations. This means that no author of Scripture ever wrote a word about the Rapture, because the doctrine of the Rapture didn’t come about until the early 19th century. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. Only when we learn to read the Bible with the original audience can we begin to make any sense of the implications it has for us today.

Today is an important day for a lot of people who love Jesus. Unfortunately, all of their hopes will be dashed. May 21, 2011, will come and go without a Rapture, and this end of days prediction will prove false, like every other prediction before it.

The temptation for all of us who saw this coming will be to gloat, and to laugh, and to say “I told you so”. But that response is just as far from Christ as using numerology to predict the second coming. 6:01 EST will not be a time to gloat or smile at the foolishness of those who believed Harold Camping. Instead, it will be a time to mourn with those who mourn–those who have forsaken everything in anticipation of this moment.

If you’re reading this after 6:00 tonight, and you believed that you were to be taken from this world, I’m sorry. I hope that you won’t be disillusioned with Jesus, but I do hope that you will repent of and forsake doomsday prophecy. Jesus told us that nobody knows when he’s coming back, not even himself. Certainly the Father wouldn’t bypass the Son and reveal this information to Harold Camping or other would be prophets. I hope that in the midst of your despair, as you try to put the pieces of your life back together, you’ll let this humble you to the point of destroying your idol of endtimes-knowledge. I hope that you can find solace in Jesus Christ, regardless of dates or times or Raptures.

My heart goes out to you because you’ve been had. Someone has substituted numerology and bizarre mathematics for biblical exegesis, and you so desperately want to be with Jesus that you fell in for it. I’m sorry. But the good news for you is that Jesus is here for you right now, on this planet, in this life. He dwells in you be faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit, and he has grace for you, available now. If it’s 6:01 and you’re still here, don’t be angry. Turn to Jesus, and let this humiliation be an opportunity for worship. Because even though he hasn’t taken you home via Rapture, he loves you and is with you right now.