Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Cyprian: The Good Confession

Image result for cyprian

12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.  (1 Timothy 6:12-13)

“I am a Christian and cannot sacrifice to the gods. I heartily thank Almighty God who is pleased to set me free from the chains of this body.” With these bold words, spoken in front of hundreds of onlookers, on Sept. 14, 258 AD Cyprian faced execution under Roman Emperor Valerian. Eyewitnesses to his death said that many of the pagans standing by were deeply moved. Cyprian was well-known to them. As Bishop of Carthage, he was an eminent figure in North Africa. But even before becoming a church leader he had been a notable man.

Born into wealth around 200, Cyprian inherited a large estate. He was schooled at the finest universities in rhetoric and oratory. Curiously it was this training which brought him to Christ. Cyprian would often debate leading thinkers of the day on everything from politics to philosophy and religion. He even debated Christian apologists who argued for the validity of the Christian worldview. Cyprian disputed with one Christian elder named Coecilius and was so convinced by his arguments that soon after their showdown he repented of sin and confessed Christ as Lord.[1]  

Cyprian became a convert when he was about 45 years old writing, “A second birth created me a new man by means of the Spirit breathed from heaven.” With zeal, he gave away his wealth and devoted himself to poverty and preaching the Gospel. Because of his silk-tongue and powerful preaching, he was soon elected as Bishop of Carthage. One of his friends, Pontius, wrote an admiring biography telling how his countenance was joyous, and that he was a man to be both revered and loved.

When a fearsome plague erupted in 252 AD, everyone was abandoning the sick in the streets. People rushed about in terror. Cyprian instructed the Christians to care for the sick, including dying pagans. Believers obeyed, despite the fact the pagans blamed them for the disease.

A new wave of persecution slammed the church when Emperor Valerian ascended to power. Because the glory of Rome was fading the Emperor was convinced that the gods were angry. Barbarian armies were invading, plagues were afflicting the masses and an economic downturn caused hard times. Looking for a scapegoat, Valerian blamed the Christians and rehashed an old ploy to tighten the noose around the Church. Every Roman citizen was required to offer a sacrifice to the gods. Upon completing the sacrifice, citizens were issued a libellus, or certificate, as proof of their loyalty to Rome and the gods. Cyprian and many others refused.   

Thus, he was beheaded, retaining his bold confession to the end. His last words “Deo Gratis!” (Latin for “Thanks be to God”) became a rallying cry for Christians afterward.[2] Friend, I would rather stand with God and be judged by the world, than stand with the world and be judged by God. Don’t back up, fold up or shut up. Give the good confession.

[1] “Cyprian,” Church History Timeline <https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/cyprian-11629611.html>
[2] “Cyprian: Enemy of the Gods,” Voice of the Martyrs, March 2013, p. 13.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Thief of Unbelief

Image result for doubt and fear ahead

Several years ago, there appeared in the New Yorker magazine an account of a Long Island resident who purchased an expensive barometer from a respected company, Abercrombie and Fitch. However, when the instrument arrived at his home, he was disappointed to discover that right out of the box the needle appeared to be stuck pointing to the sector marked “Hurricane.”

After shaking the barometer vigorously several times—which is not exactly a good idea with a sensitive piece of scientific equipment—he couldn’t get the needle to budge. Thinking that he’d bought a dud, that evening the man wrote a scathing letter to the store. On his way to work in New York City he mailed it the next morning.   

Much to his chagrin, that evening the man returned to Long Island to find not only the barometer missing, but his house as well! The needle of that instrument had been correct all along. It was September 21, 1938, the day of the now-infamous “New England Hurricane,” which claimed the lives of at least 700 people in the devastating storm surge.[1]  

According to the Word of God, the thief of unbelief is one of the most devastating sins. Unbelief has robbed the blessings from poor souls and left them as spiritual beggars. It has run away with the doubter’s peace of mind and caused them to be hardened cynics. Worse yet, unbelief has stolen salvation from untold numbers and damned them to a Christ-less eternity.

The thief of unbelief has a rap-sheet a mile long. When Jesus came to His hometown of Nazareth, Matt. 13:58 reports that, “He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” Moreover, James points out that one reason why our prayers are hindered is because of our unbelief, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). The writer of Hebrews commented that the chief reason why the children of Israel were made to wander in the wilderness for 40 years was because of their stubborn unbelief (Heb. 3:19). Then there is “Doubting Thomas,” who would not believe that Jesus had raised from the dead until he verified it with his own senses (John 20:25).

In my experiences there are different forms of unbelief. First, there’s the doubter who says, “I can’t believe.” Perhaps, they have trouble believing because they need more information, or because they are control-freaks who are simply afraid to trust God. This kind of doubter wants to believe but needs some help getting there. Like the father of the demon-possessed boy who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  

There’s another kind—the skeptic who says, “I won’t believe.” There’s a difference here because there is not just an intellectual resistance, but a moral rebellion. They will not go where the evidence points because they don’t like the inevitable conclusion. Paul talks about this kind of person in Romans 1:18 saying that they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” This is why many sinners clench their fist at God because they don’t want to be accountable to a just and holy authority.

John Ortberg warns against this kind of thinking, “If we want to, we can find ways to explain away every reason for faith: the existence of creation, stories of answered prayer; evidence for the resurrection; testimonies of changed lives; the unmatched wisdom of Jesus; and the tugging and longing of your own heart for grace. If you want badly enough not to believe, you will find a way not to believe.”[2]  

Here’s the Good News if you’re a doubter, skeptic or cynic—Christ can clear away the fog of unbelief. The Light of the World has burned through the mists of doubt more than once. Thomas, Augustine, Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, on-and-on the list goes of skeptics who had their doubt turned inside-out into faith. Don’t be paralyzed by what you don’t know but take the first step by what you do. It’s time to doubt our doubts. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  -DM

[1] Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations & Quotes (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 593.
[2] John Ortberg, Faith & Doubt (Grand Rapids: MI: Zondervan, 2008), 133.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

A Perilous Proposal

Image result for Adoniram anne judson

Adonirum Judson had known Ann Hasseltine only one month before proposing to her in 1810, asking her to serve the Lord with him as a missionary. Ann knew that if she agreed to marry him, she might never see her family again.

For weeks she prayed about and pondered Adonirum’s proposal, until she finally determined that she was “willing to carry the Gospel to the distant heathen.” When at Ann’s request, Adonirum wrote to her parents asking her hand in marriage, he was frank about the realities their daughter might face if she became his wife.

“I have now to ask whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure to a heathen land, and her subjection to hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution and perhaps even a violent death? Can you consent to all of this, for the sake of Him who left His heavenly home and died for her and for you; for the sake perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion and the glory of God?”

Ann’s father replied that his daughter could make up her own mind. Given his tacit approval, Adonirum and Ann married on Feb. 5, 1812, setting sail two weeks later for India and then finally Burma.

The Judson’s lives were filled with hardship, beginning with the three-week journey to Burma during which Ann suffered a stillbirth that rendered her bedridden for months. They endured tropical diseases and heat in excess of 100 degrees, spending 12 hours a day learning a new language. For a time, the couple served alone in Burma without the fellowship of other missionaries, and their attempts at evangelism were also discouraging. Six years passed before they baptized their first Christian convert.

After mastering the language, the Judson’s worked to translate the New Testament into Burmese. In addition to translating the books of Daniel and Jonah into Burmese, Ann also translated the Gospel of Matthew into Thai.

Their favor with Burma’s royal court fluctuated, taking a turn for the worse after the British attacked Rangoon in 1824. Westerners soon came to be viewed as spies, resulting in the arrest and imprisonment of Adonirum. During his imprisonment, Ann gave birth to their daughter Maria. However, Ann became so sick that she could not nurse her baby. Adonirum was released from prison in 1825, and Ann died 11 months later from a combination of diseases. Sadly, Maria’s death followed six months later.

Though devastated, Adonirum went on to translate the whole Bible into Burmese and to remarry, later losing his second wife to illness. In total he lost 7 of his 13 children before he passed in 1850. Some of Judson’s last words were, “There is no success without sacrifice. While daylight lasts, I will plod on till the cross of Christ is planted here forever.”  

The Judson’s suffered greatly for the Gospel. Today, their legacy still lives on through the many missionaries who were inspired by their intrepid spirit. Moreover, thousands have come to Christ through their translation of the Burmese Bible—which is still used to this day.[1]  -DM  

[1] “A Perilous Proposal,” The Voice of the Martyrs, September 2019, p. 12.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Danger of Drifting

Image result for drifting boat

Earlier this summer the media reported a scary story about a boy’s bad day at the beach. The CNN article recounted the incident, “A day at the beach turned into a frightening rescue for one 8-year-old boy after the giant unicorn-shaped raft he was playing on suddenly drifted out to sea. Declan O'Connor found himself holding on for life in the surf off Oak Island, North Carolina, as high winds swept him further into the Atlantic Ocean. The unicorn’s head and horn served as a stand-in sail. Luckily for the boy, a team of rescuers were quickly on scene and retrieved him. A local rescue chief credited the boy's decision to stick with the unicorn —a wise move, or else he might've drowned.”[1]

When I read that story, I thought about how the Bible warns against the danger of drifting in our spiritual lives. The writer of Hebrews cautioned, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1). There is no better example of this principle than the nephew of Abraham, Lot. When you study the life of Abraham you get the sense that Lot was really riding off the spiritual coattails of his uncle.

Lot may have believed in God, but he did not have a committed walk with God like faithful Abe. When the time came for them to part ways we read that Lot made a critical choice, “Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt . . .Lot pitched his tent in the direction of Sodom” (Gen. 13:10-12). Lot made the mistake of moving closer to Sin City, which would eventually unravel his whole life.  

From there on, Lot’s sordid slide only increased in speed. He ended up living in Sodom and even becoming a member of city hall (Gen. 19:1). When Sodom was slated for divine destruction, Abraham pleaded with God to spare Lot and his family. Graciously, God rescued Lot, but as the fire fell all his possessions were burned up in the inferno and his worldly wife was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:23-26). Lot lost everything, but it all began when he started the dangerous downhill drift away from God.

As I thought about Lot’s fall, I discovered these truths about spiritual drift. First, it happens gradually. You stop praying and reading the Bible. Then you miss one church service. Before you know it, you’re gone a month, two months, a year and you don’t really miss God’s people or His Word. Second, drifting happens carelessly. We don’t naturally gravitate toward holiness. Our default setting is bent towards sin and gratifying the flesh. Drifting is easy when you don’t have your heels dug in and you’re resisting its under-toe. Watch out for times of prosperity, they have a tendency to lull us into spiritual slumber. Third, drifting happens intellectually. What I mean is that we start making metal excuses and compromises with sin. “I’m so busy, I don’t have time to pray.” “I know he isn’t a Christian, but if I date him, I can change him.” “I can have this one drink, after all Jesus turned the water into wine.”

The good news is, if you find yourself drifting, you can repent and return to the Lord before you find yourself in a bad place. Zechariah 1:3, “Therefore say to them, ‘Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you.” -DM

[1] Scottie Andrew, “A Boy on a Unicorn Float Drifted Half a Mile out to Sea in North Carolina,” CNN, 11 June 2019 <https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/11/us/unicorn-float-rescue-trnd/index.html>