The more we read and study the Bible, the more painful it becomes when we hear a verse quoted out of context and even used to advocate for the exact opposite of the verse in its context.
In reading through Joel Osteen’s book, Your Best Life Now, this pain is fairly constant. But the worst context-ripping and heart-rending example is Osteen’s use of Colossians 3:2 in Part 1: Enlarge Your Vision. Verses 1-2 read:
“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.”
If this verse is teaching anything, it’s calling the believer to seek satisfaction and enjoyment in the spiritual realm not the material, in the eternal not in time, in heavenly pleasures not earthly pleasures, in spiritual wealth not in financial wealth, in Christ not in self.
Which, of course, is the exact opposite of what Osteen teaches.
So, how does he solve that “problem”?
Easy, just butcher the verse.
Osteen’s (per)version is, “Set your mind and keep it set on the higher things.”
Osteen manipulates and distorts this verse in three ways in order to make it fit his carnal agenda in total opposition to the Apostle Paul’s intent.
- “Things above” has been changed to “higher things.
- “Where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God” has been conveniently chopped off.
- “Not on things on the earth” has also been eliminated.
With these three swift and not-so-subtle slashes of the knife, Osteen carves out the words he needs to justify equating “higher things” with greater money, possessions, power, popularity, promotions, and so on.
If we were in any doubt as to what Osteen is trying to do here, the remainder of Part 1 dispels them by his praise for example after example of rampant discontent, greed, and materialism.
The audacity of using a verse in God’s Word to promote exactly the opposite of what God intended that verse to teach is shockingly breathtaking. You’d think Osteen could find a verse or two that would be less obviously perverted and manipulated to support his deceit. But no, he takes one of the most “spiritual” verses in the Bible and mutates it into the most carnal agenda imaginable.
Perhaps it’s little wonder that verse one begins, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things that are above.”
In this case, it’s a big “if.”
It’s one of the oldest political tricks in the book. Create such an impression of momentum behind a certain candidate or policy that everyone else jumps on board to avoid being left out or left behind. It’s a deception that plays on common human weaknesses; the desire to be on the winning side, the fear of being on the “outside,” the instinct to avoid unpopularity, and the yearning for approval.
And Time magazine is attempting to pull off this sneaky ruse on Evangelical Christians with an article headlined, How Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds On Gay Marriage (full article requires subscription). In it, Elizabeth Dias (sexual orientation undisclosed, as usual), marshals multiple pieces of “evidence” for this revolution in Evangelical morals and ethics. She begins:
“If evangelical Christianity is famous for anything in contemporary American politics, it is for its complete opposition to gay marriage. Now, slowly yet undeniably, evangelicals are changing their minds. Every day, evangelical communities across the country are arriving at new crossroads over marriage.”
So, what’s the evidence for this unstoppable tsunami of change among evangelicals?
1. One poll
Dias quotes one poll of young people which claimed to show that among young evangelicals, “support for gay marriage jumped from 20% in 2003 to 42% in 2014.”
2. One megachurch
She cites one megachurch, EastLake Community Church outside Seattle, which she says is “one of the first evangelical megachurches in the country to support full inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ people.” And she claims, “It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of this move” given that “EastLake is in many ways the quintessential evangelical megachurch.”
Much later in the article Dias admits that “EastLake has lost 22% of its income and 800 attendees in the past 18 months, and it anticipates that those numbers may continue to climb.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement from even Eastlake’s evangelicals.
3. Anonymous leaders
She portrays evangelical leaders as accepting of gay marriage in private, yet still maintaining opposition in public.
“[My article] is a deep dive into the changing allegiances and divides in evangelical churches and communities over homosexuality. In public, so many churches and pastors are afraid to talk about the generational and societal shifts happening. But behind the scenes, it’s a whole different game.”
But she doesn’t give any names.
4. Two discussions
She references discussions between two evangelical leaders (Andy Stanley and Bill Hybels) and their congregations “about how to navigate the changes they are seeing in their pews.”
5. Two meetings with LGBTQ “Christians”
She says “Hybels has been meeting privately for the past year with LGBTQ congregants to learn to better understand their stories,” and “Stanley met together with both LGBT evangelical advocates and SBC leaders for a closed-door conversation about whether their different views on gay marriage put them outside the faith.”
6. One friendship
She points to Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, who “has developed a friendship with LGBT activist Ted Trimpa and the Gill Foundation, and they are working together on topics like passing anti-human-trafficking legislation.”
7. One college hire
Wheaton College’s hire of a celibate (underline that) lesbian as a student counselor is also said to herald significant change. In fairness, Dias does acknowledge that Wheaton also allowed converted ex-lesbian Rosaria Butterfield to speak to the student body, although Dias presents this as contradicting the hiring policy!
By the way, #4-7 above should be a solemn warning to us about how gay activists will wickedly distort our best intentions and twist our sincere attempts to reach out to gays and lesbians. Doesn’t mean we should stop talking and end friendships, but be aware of how our love and goodwill may be turned against us.
8. One gay choreographer
I know, this is getting ridiculous, but apparently “Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University hired an openly gay choreographer to assist with a campus production of Mary Poppins last spring.” Dias admits that the University defended itself “by saying he was an independent contractor, not an official employee.”
9. Three “Gay Christian” activists
The well-worn names and well-refuted teachings of gay activists, Matthew Vines, Brandan Robertson, and Justin Lee, are presented as the clinchers in this case for an evangelical revolution.
Yep, that’s it. One poll, one megachurch, unnamed leaders, two congregational discussions, two meetings with LGBTQ’s, one college hire, one gay dancer, and three gay activists.
That’s Dias’s strongest case for this alleged bandwagon of evangelical change. Rather unimpressive bandwagon isn’t it?
I don’t buy it, and neither should you. Yes, there are some worrying signs here and there of evangelical capitulation. No doubt, some evangelical leaders will jump the shark to maintain popularity with the world. However, don’t fall for this trick of “Everybody’s doing it (or thinking it).”
We don’t let our children off with such arguments, especially when the evidence is so flimsy. So let’s not allow this childish case to shake our commitment to biblical morality.
Not now. Not ever.
But there’s one line in Dias’s piece with which we can all agree: “For everyone on all sides, the Bible itself is at stake.”
Those who've struggled with this are not alone.
It’s not only old and new atheists who have struggled with the God of the Old Testament. As R C Sproul admits in chapter 6 of The Holiness of God, some of the greatest Christians, including Martin Luther and the Apostle Paul, have wrestled to reconcile God’s holy justice with the seeming brutality of God’s judgments, especially in the Old Testament.
Before facing the difficulties head on and “staring the Old Testament God in the face,” Sproul rapidly dispatches some of the common yet unacceptable solutions to this problem. Then, instead of choosing some of the easier passages to explain and defend, Sproul takes head-on the most difficult and offensive passages in the Bible:
- The judgment of Nadab and Abihu for offering an unauthorized sacrifice (Lev. 10:1-3).
- The judgment on Uzzah for touching the ark (1 Chron. 13:7-11).
- Capital punishment for multiple crimes.
- The command given to Israel to slaughter thousands of Canaanites.
- The killing of Christ on the cross.
This chapter on God’s holy justice is the most outstanding chapter in an outstanding book, and, I believe, one of the greatest chapters Sproul has ever written. Although he deals with each of the above passages in turn, here’s my attempt to gather together and summarize the common threads in each section:
God’s judgments were pre-announced
In the cases of Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah, God cannot be accused of unexpected, whimsical, or arbitrary judgment. Rather, God gave clear instructions and unmistakeable prohibitions and, in the case of Uzzah at least, clear and unmistakeable sanctions for disobedience (Ex. 30:9-10; Num. 4:15-20). These were not innocent men and these were not sins of ignorance.
God’s judgments are holy
As God’s justice is according to His holy character, His justice is never divorced from His righteousness. He never condemns the innocent, clears the guilty, or punishes with undue severity.
God’s judgments are delayed
Although the New Testament seems to reduce the number of capital offenses, even the Old Testament represents a massive reduction in capital crimes from original list – instant death for each and every sin.
The OT, therefore, is a record of the grace of God, because every sin is a capital offense and deserving of death. The issue is not why does God punish sin but why does He permit ongoing human rebellion and ongoing human existence. The OT is a record of a God who is patient in the extreme with a rebellious people, delaying the full measure of justice so that grace would have time to work.
God’s judgments are against sin
We don’t understand God’s judgments because we don’t understand sin. Sin is cosmic treason – treason against a perfectly pure sovereign. It misrepresents God whose image we are called to bear, and it violates others – injuring, despoiling, and robbing them. In commanding the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites, God was not giving injustice to Canaan and justice to Israel; He gave justice to Canaan and mercy to Israel. The Canaanites were not innocent, but a treasonous people who daily insulted God’s holiness (Deut. 9:4-6).
God’s judgments were approved by Jesus
Christ called the Old Testament God, “Father.” It was the Old Testament God who sent His son to save the world, and the Old Testament God’s will that Jesus came to do. It was zeal for the Old Testament God who slew Nadab and Abihu that consumed Christ (John 2:17).
God’s greatest judgment was experienced by Jesus
The most powerful act of divine vengeance in the Bible, and the most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice, is seen at the cross. If we have cause for moral outrage, let it be focused on the cross. Yet, the cross was the most beautiful and the most horrible example of God’s wrath. It was the most just and the most gracious act in history.
God’s judgments destroy entitlement
Since we tend to take grace for granted, God reminded Israel through His judgments that grace must never be assumed. God’s judgments challenge our secret sense of entitlement, and changes the question from “Why doesn’t God save everybody?” to “Why did God save me?” But if we insist on insisting on what we deserve, we will get justice, not mercy.
(For more on this, read The Holiness of God by R C Sproul.)
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and has also recently accepted the call to be the Pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church. He is the author of Christians get depressed too, How Sermons Work, and the forthcoming Jesus on Every Page. He blogs at HeadHeartHand and you can follow him on Twitter @DavidPMurray.
2014 is now covered with the blood of Christ.
2015 now waits to be written.
What will your story be?
According to Twitter, the top aspirations and intentions people are sharing online include:
#1. Work out
#2. Be happy
#3. Lose weight
#4. Stop smoking
“Be happy” doubtless appeared on the first ever set of New Year resolutions carved in stone; it’s likely been on every list since then; and, presumably, it will also be on the last list ever to be written.
But how? How to be happy? Here are some hints.
Never cease to show your people that to be holy is to be happy; and that, to bring us to perfect holiness and likeness to God, was the very end for which Christ died. Andrew Bonar
For if sin is misery, sinners can only be made happy indeed by being made holy. The process of redemption, then, is one whose design throughout is holiness. Robert Dabney
There will three effects of nearness to Jesus, all beginning with the letter h—humility, happiness, and holiness. Charles Spurgeon
If the question be asked, why we should seek the good of mankind, the answer is, from a regard to our everlasting happiness; and if the question be, why we should make the will of God the rule of our conduct, the answer must be the same; So that really all virtue is resolved into a regard to our own happiness. Archibald Alexander
O that all the world but knew that holiness and happiness are one! O that all the world were one holy family, joyfully coming under the pure rules of the gospel! Andrew Bonar
They’re not hungering and thirsting after happiness. They’re hungering and thirsting after righteousness, that’s why they’re happy. John Macarthur
Authentic obedience comes when happiness and holiness meet such that holiness becomes the source of happiness rather than its alternative. Holiness is meant to ignite, not eliminate, joy. Dane Ortlund
I wish you all a very holy and, therefore, a very happy 2015.