I Don’t Call Myself a “Christian”

Forty years at Western Seminary (1977-2018)

You are probably surprised to read these words, “I don’t call myself a Christian.” How can someone who is an ordained minister, taught the Bible for forty years, pastored churches, written Bible commentaries and “Christian” books say, “I don’t call myself a Christian.”

I am not trying to be sensational or gain a bit of notoriety. Yet I have come to believe the word “Christian” is not the best term to identify me or describe my spiritual commitment. The word “Christian” is based on the Greek word, Christos, which is means “anointed one” and refers to Israel’s promised messiah (meshiach). When Jesus’ disciples were asked who they thought he was, Peter answered correctly saying, “You are the Christos (messiah), the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Peter was simply affirming his belief that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah.

The first time the word “Christian” appears in the Bible was when it was used by the pagan gentiles of Antioch (Acts 11:26).  In their attempt to identify the congregation that had gathered to hear the teaching of Saul (Paul) and Barnabas, the people of Antioch called them Christianos (Acts 11:26). The root meaning and cultural background leads me to translate Christianos as “Messianics.” Since the strange community of people who had gathered in their city believed that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, they were identified by the citizens of Antioch as “Messianics.”

It is helpful to point out that none of Jesus apostles ever called themselves “Christians.” Nor did Paul ever identify himself as a “Christian.” Paul was born a Jew and died as a Jew. He testified to his Jewishness even after he became a follower of Jesus (Phil. 3:4-6). After hearing Paul’s testimony about his personal spiritual journey, King Agrippa said, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28). In replying, Paul didn’t use the term Christian, but simply said, “I would wish to God, that…all who hear me this day, might became as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:28). Although Paul wanted Agrippa to believe in Jesus, he didn’t invite King Agrippa to become a “Christian.”

The apostle Peter used the term Christianos to describe followers of Jesus who were undergoing persecution. He wrote, “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify” (1 Pet. 4:16). Peter used the term “Christian” in the same way as those who were persecuting the believers. He was saying to the persecuted, “Glorify Jesus when you are persecuted as a “messianic.”

The greatest concern I have with the term “Christian” is that it is too broad and widely used to be helpful in self-identifying as a follower of Jesus. People sometimes claim to be “Christians” because they were born into a Christian family. Many religious minded people call themselves “Christians” even though they don’t believe that Jesus is the divine Son of God and Savior of fallen humanity. They call themselves “Christians,” because they are not Jewish, Moslem or Buddhist. The heretics who darkened the church over the centuries called themselves “Christians.” The Crusaders who led a murderous spree across Europe to “liberate” Jerusalem from the Moslems and Jews regarded themselves as “Christians.” The Spaniards who carried out the Inquisition were “Christians.” Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers identified themselves as Christians, as have members of the Klu Klux Klan.

“Christian” Klu Klux Klan members gather at their church

Years ago I was reading my Bible and praying at the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem when I was greeted by Jewish man who asked, “Are you Jewish.” I responded, “No, I am a Christian.” He turned and walked away. I wonder how he might have responded had I replied, “I am messianic.” Perhaps he would have inquired further. Perhaps we might have had a conversation. But by calling myself a “Christian,” I had conjured up two millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment and history of persecution by so-called “Christians.”

In a day when self-identifying has become so acceptable in our increasingly diverse American culture, I wonder if there is a better way for believers to speak of our relationship with Jesus. When the Lord called His first disciples, He simply said, “Follow me” (Mk. 1:17, Matt. 4:19). And immediately the fishermen left their nets and “followed Him” (Mk. 1:18, Matt. 4:20). Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me,” is found repeatedly (ten times) in the Gospels! The word “followed” is commonly used in the Gospels to refer to the crowds who attached themselves to Jesus as His disciples. They became followers of Jesus.

I suggest that “Jesus follower” is a more meaningful way to self-identify than using the traditional, but rather empty term, “Christian.” What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? First, a follower of Jesus must believe and trust that what the Bible says about Him is true (Jn. 20:30-30). A follower of Jesus believes that He is the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. Intellectual ascent to these facts is not enough. These essential truths must be personally embraced and individually relied upon. Second, a follower of Jesus must count the cost of discipleship (Lk. 9:59-61). Jesus wants followers who are moved not merely by their emotions or family background, but have thoughtfully considered the commitment they are making. Third, a follower of Jesus must be willing to sacrifice (Matt. 16:24). To follow Jesus will require the sacrifice of pleasures, habits, aims and ambitions that we have woven into our lives. This act of turning from ourselves and turning to Jesus is called “repentance.” It is an act of surrendering the leadership of our lives to Jesus. Self-surrender is never easy. It is an act of sacrifice.

Jesus was not a “Christian.” He was the Jewish Messiah of Israel. The apostles were not a “Christians.” They were first century followers of Israel’s promised Messiah. Paul was not a Christian. He was Jewish man whose life changing encounter on the road to Damascus led him to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). So, I don’t call myself a “Christian.” I identify as a follower of Jesus. And I invite you to be His follower too.

“I Could Never Vote for Trump!”

I have heard a lot of people say recently, “I could never vote for Trump.” I agree. I could never vote for Donald Trump to be my pastor, my church’s Sunday School superintendent or Boys and Girls Club leader. But, here is what you need to know. He’s not running for any of those offices.

I find Trump’s “tweets” annoying, his personal lifestyle unacceptable and his hair atrocious.  But those issues rank pretty low in my consideration of a candidate. What interests me most of all are the political and moral issues which a candidate supports. While there are things I don’t like about Mr. Trump, I applaud his stand on issues. Show me another candidate who embraces the sanctity of unborn human life, who supports the nation of Israel, who appoints conservative minded Supreme Court Justices and who supports the rights of citizens as stated in the Second Amendment, and I will consider giving that person my vote.

If you are going to disqualify Trump from consideration as our nation’s leader, then forget about honoring George Washington who owned over a hundred slaves or Thomas Jefferson who had sex and bore children with his slaves, or Benjamin Franklin who was a flirtatious and unfaithful husband, or Abraham Lincoln whose Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the southern states, leaving slavery to continue in the north, or John F. Kennedy who was having an affair with a Soviet spy when he was assassinated, or Lyndon Johnson, another womanizer, or Richard Nixon who was a foul mouthed liar, or Bill Clinton who was having sex (or something) with Monica in the Oval Office. Did I mention Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday our nation celebrates annually? His extramarital affairs make Clinton look like a choir boy by comparison!

I am not writing to “dis” these national leaders. They did some good things. But they weren’t perfect. Nobody is. I don’t judge presidential candidates based on their lifestyles, personal choices or moral compromises. I judge them on the basis of what they have done or are doing for our country. Some politicians in Washington D.C. manage to hide their personal lives and moral compromises better than Mr. Trump. His are right out there in the open for the world to see…and criticize. But one thing is sure about Trump; you see what you get. He is certainly not the pristine example of moral uprightness. But he is doing a better job at keeping his campaign promises than many others who have occupied the White House. Twenty years after congress voted to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump had the … well, courage to do it.

Many great men of history have blots on their personal records, but we remember and appreciate them for what they did, not necessarily for who they were. Americans have the right to cast their ballot for a candidate who supports a woman’s prerogative to terminate the life of her unborn child, redefines the meaning of “marriage,” and subverts the original meaning of our nation’s constitution. There are lots of those candidates to choose from. But whether Democrat or Republican, that’s a person I could never vote for!

Oregon Ducks Rose Bowl Winners! But there is more to the story.

The University of Oregon fighting Ducks were victorious over the Wisconsin Badgers in the 106th Rose Bowl football game. The fourth quarter was the most exciting part of the game as the both teams fought for the victory. The Ducks and the Badgers were pretty evenly matched, with Oregon squeezing out one more point than Wisconsin. The final score was 28-27. Whew!

Without wanting to take anything away from Oregon’s hard earned win, I was disappointed in how the game finished. The Oregon team walked to the scrimmage line, got in position for a play. It looked as though the Ducks were going to kick. But when the clock started and the ball was hiked, they quarterback took a knee, put down the ball and walked away with 30 seconds left in the last quarter.

As the clock continued ticking, the team began celebrating. Fans started pouring out onto the field. Water was dumped on the coach’s head. All this while the official game clock continued ticking away the final seconds of the game.

People who know more about football than me are quick to explain. They say that the Ducks didn’t want to start another play with the risk of turning over the ball and giving Wisconsin a chance to score. Other say that the Oregon team didn’t want to risk another play which might result in injury. OK, I get it. Still, even as an Oregon alum and Duck fan, I believe it was wimpy to quit playing the game before it was officially over.

What lesson did the finish of the game have for me? Eighteen months ago I concluded my forty-year career as a professor at Western Seminary. Although I still enjoyed teaching the Bible, I knew that there were others who could do the job equally as well. And they were ready and waiting their turn. In addition, I wanted to leave my teaching post before I ran out of steam and someone suggested that it was time to move on.

So I am officially “retired.” But I really don’t like that word. My game is still on. The clock is still ticking. And I plan to keep playing. I still have sermons to preach, books to write, lectures to teach and disciples to mentor. I don’t plan to spend the next decade of my life coasting to finish line of my life. I want to finish strong and finish well.

I have been in enough marathons to know that the last six miles is the toughest part of the 26-mile race. Plodding along with blistered feet, hungry and thirsty from pushing my way through the first twenty miles, I have wondered, “why am I doing this? I am not going to win. Who cares if I finish?”

But in spite of how I feel or how badly my legs ache, I know I have to finish the race. I will stop at the finish line, and not before. It would be easier to stop running and disappear into the crowd of spectators. But my family would be surprised and a bit disappointed. Most importantly, I would be disappointed in myself.

I don’t know how many more minutes, hours, months or years there are left in my game. Someday the Lord will blow His whistle and stop the clock. But until that day, I will be playing hard, playing to win, giving Satan some hard knocks and doing all I can to advance the kingdom of God here on earth. The mighty Oregon Ducks won the 2020 Rose Bowl football game. But they didn’t finish strong. They didn’t fight until the clock stopped. They coasted into the finish. They started the victory celebration before the game was officially over.

I hope and pray that by God’s grace, I will still be in the race, pushing hard in the marathon of life until I cross the finish line and the clock stops.


The Impeachment Hearings: A Biblical Perspective

I usually begin my day with a 3-5 mile run in and around Portland’s premiere greenway, Mt. Tabor Park. But on Fridays, I take a break from the trails and tarmac to give my upper body a workout at Cascade Health Club. The “stair master” is great for keeping my calves and quads in shape for backpacking and mountain climbing during the summer.

This morning as I started stepping up, up, and up, I couldn’t help noticing that five of the nine televisions were providing live coverage of the public impeachment hearings. The stated purpose of these public hearings is to present sufficient incriminating evidence against President Trump that the American citizens will support his impeachment.

As I watched the hearings, I couldn’t help but think of the words of King David in Psalm 2:4 where he declares, “He who sits in heaven laughs.” Who is David referring to? He is referring to God, the Creator and Ruler of the universe. You may be surprised to discover that God actually has a sense of humor and laughs.

As you read Psalm 2, you discover what God is laughing about. He is laughing at the nations and their rulers who are focused on devising their own plans and exercising their own power. They have set themselves against God and His authority. They believe they are so important, powerful and wise, that no one is going to challenge them.

Sadly, the judges and rulers have an inflated opinion of themselves. They think they are in charge. But David declares that they are deceived and deluded. So who is in charge, if not the rulers, judges and kings of the earth? David has the answer. God is the sovereign Ruler of His creation. God declares, “I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain” (Psalm 2:6). The rule of God’s appointed, messianic King is so certain that His dominion is declared in the past tense, as if it has already been accomplished.

David concludes Psalm 2 with a warning for the kings and judges to “wise up” and heed his warning. “Worship the LORD with reverence…and do homage to [His] Son.” God is the ultimate ruler and judge. And David promises blessing “for all who take refuge in Him.”

While the impeachment process is a serious matter, we must keep an eternal perspective on such temporal events. While the world seems to be in disarray, there is comfort in knowing that the King is still on His throne. God, not man, is in charge. God’s kingdom work is progressing and will be culminated with the return of King Jesus, the world’s sovereign Ruler and ultimate Judge. What is happening in the impeachment hearings is less than a dot on the pages of world history. Whatever the outcome, the BIG news for today is that God is still in charge! The press, National Public Radio and the television stations are ignoring the most important news story of the ages. Today’s news will soon be forgotten. The BIG news story is that the King, is coming! “Take warning, O judges of the earth.” King Jesus is coming to rule and to judge.


Six Principles for Discipling Children

I am thankful for the ministry of Awana, church based program which is being used to reach 4 million kids every week in over 120 countries. Awana is a discipleship program that gives children and youth from every background the opportunity to know, love and serve Jesus for a lifetime. God is the Awana leaders and volunteers to bless children in a way that will impact them for a lifetime!

Awana volunteers recognize that the most strategic time in a person’s life to impart spiritual truth is during their childhood. How do we pass on spiritual truth to our children? Deuteronomy 6 provides the answer. Here we discover six biblical principles for discipling children.

Deuteronomy 6 is primarily an exposition of the 1st commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me” (Deut. 5:7). The very first thing God wants His people to know is that there is one true God, and He alone is worthy of our worship and service.

  1. Follow the biblical pattern (1-3). Moses begins my showing us the biblical pattern for discipleship. Pass it on! To make disciples, we pass on what we have learned to others. Moses taught the parents. The parents were responsible for teaching their children and grandchildren. And the good results of passing on this spiritual truth is that the recipients will have long life (v. 2) and lots of blessing (v. 3).
  2. Focus attention on the one true God (4). Verses are known as the “Shema,” based on the Hebrew word, “Hear.” But the word doesn’t just mean “hear with your ears,” but respond to what you hear with your heart, mind and body.” Verse four declares the uniqueness of the one, true God. The words, “Yahweh is one (achad), are better translated, “Yahweh alone!” Daniel Block writes, “This is a cry of allegiance, an affirmation of covenant commitment in response to the question, ‘Who is the God of Israel?’” (JETS 2004).
  3. Be passionate in your love for God (5). If you are not passionate in your love for God, don’t expect your children to be excited and passionate about God. Verse 5 calls for an all-encompassing love for God. We are to love God with all our heart (intention or will), soul (our whole self) and our might (the superlative degree of commitment. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 in answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment in the law” (Matt. 22:37).
  4. Recognize the importance of repetition (6-9). What is teaching? The Hebrew word used in verse six means “repeat.” Teaching is helping others to learn through a process of repetition. People sometimes ask me how I learned the Bible. It was by repeatedly studying and reviewing the truths of God’s Word. I believe that repetition with variety is the key t learning. Moses gives us two examples of the element of variety.

The first is to inscribe God’s Word on your hand and forehead. These verses are the basis for the Jewish tradition of putting a phylactery or teffilin (plural for tefillah, “prayer”) on their forehead and arm. This is a visual and ongoing reminder that all we do should be done in the light of His commandments. Putting God’s Word on your forehead, right between your eyes, places is near your mind and in the forefront of your memory.

The second example of variety in teaching is to put God’s word on the mezuzah (literally “doorpost) of your house and gates. This serves as a constant reminder that as we go out of our homes and into the city, we are to obey God’s commandments.

In Jewish tradition, these instructions are applied literally, as they put on their phylactery (a little black box containing a portion of Scripture) and install the mezuzah (a little tube containing a portion of Scripture) at the entrance of their homes. Another way to apply these verses is to have a box of memory cards which are regularly posted on the refrigerator and bathroom mirror for the purposes of remembering and reviewing Scripture.

  1. Emphasize the holy triad (10-19). Three things rise to the top of Moses’ list for training disciples: First, “remember God” (10-12). Forgetfulness of Yahweh’s goodness is the pathway to disobedience and failure. Here Moses offers a warning that success and prosperity can be dangerous to your spiritual life if you don’t remember that God is the source of these blessings! A famous Jewish rabbi said, “Forgetfulness leads to exile. Remembrance is the key to redemption.”

Second, “Fear God” (13-16). To “fear God” means to know who He is and what He expects of His people. The “fear of God” is a reverence and respect for God that leads us to obey His commandments. Moses warns his people to “fear God” by not becoming entangled with the false gods of Canaan or the secular culture.

Third, “Obey God” (17-19). Be diligent to obey God!  As the grand old hymn reminds us, “Trust and obey, for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

  1. Embrace strategic opportunities (20-25). Discipling children requires embracing teachable moments. A teachable moment is when a child asks a question. Drop everything and respond! Moses instructs parents to teach what God has done in history (21-23). Then what God has revealed in his Word (24-25). Finally, teach what God has promised (24). Moses says that our obedience doesn’t just please God, it is the key to our survival. Obedience is for “our good” and for “our life.”

Since I have not really “taught” until I have repeated, here is a summary of six principles from Deuteronomy 6 for discipling children:

  • Follow the biblical pattern of passing what you have learned on to others.
  • Focus children’s attention on the one true God as revealed in Jesus.
  • Be passionate in your own love for God. You can’t teach what you aren’t doing.
  • Recognize the importance of repetition. If you are not repeating, you are not teaching! “Repetition with variety is the key to learning.”
  • Emphasize the holy triad of remembering, fearing and obeying God.
  • Embrace strategic opportunities, like teachable moments when a child’s mind is open and their hearts are tender.

After visiting my wife’s family in Atlanta, Georgia, we were traveling by metro train to the airport. A few stops after we boarded the train, a group of young boys riding their electric scooters got on and began riding up and down the aisle and verbally abusing the passengers. Alerted by the train security, the police boarded the train a few stops later and escorted the boys off the train. It was sad to see a group of who were headed for a lifetime of trouble and possibly jail since they had not been taught the truths of God’s Word. How different their lives might be if they had been discipled through the ministry of AWANA!

Why I write

Among other things, I write. I have written countless college and seminary papers, a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, dozens of articles and about 20 books. You may wonder why I do this. Why do I sit at a desk and write when I could be outside in playing in the sunshine, hiking in the mountains or driving one of my military jeeps? I have been wondering about this myself! Here are seven reasons that keep me at the keyboard. Perhaps they will encourage you to become a writer too!

  1. I have something to say. I will never forget the two weeks of summer vacation I devoted to writing my first book, The Divorce Myth (Bethany House Publishers). Studying the teachings of Jesus, I had come to a new understanding of God’s plan for marriage. It was different from what I had previously believed and from what most pastors preached. I felt that it needed to be shared. My research and study flowed from my mind to my fingertips as I wrote. I was on a roll! It was hard to stop for lunch or take breaks. For me, the desire to write comes from having something important to say.
  2. I like the challenge. Most of my writing has been related to my profession as a Bible teacher. I like the challenge of studying Scripture in order to understand the truth of a biblical text. Before writing, I dig into the original text, background, culture, history and geography of a biblical passage. Then, I work to identify the essential principles and applications. I especially enjoy working on interpretive problems which requires the examination of different views, weighing the evidence for each, and then coming to my own conclusions. Finally, I am faced with the challenge of presenting my interpretation in a clear and understandable way. This was my goal in writing Answers to Tough Questions from Every Book of the Bible (Wiph & Stock). How do you answer the question, “What is the unpardonable sin” in a couple of pages when you could write a book on the subject? It is an engaging challenge to write an answer to a tough question, clearly and concisely, in just a couple of pages.
  3. I enjoy the process. I have heard people say, “I hate writing.” I understand. Writing is one of the hardest things I do. But once I get started on a theme, an article or a book, I find myself compelled along by the shear enjoyment of the process! The process of writing is like building something that will be of lasting benefit to others. During my college days I worked for a construction company building streets. I enjoyed every step of the process—excavating, preparing the road bed with gravel, paving with asphalt, and then finishing the project for inspection. I was proud of the streets I had helped pave. Similarly, writing is the hard work you go through to gain a rewarding result. And I do the work with the hope that my efforts will bless and benefit my readers.
  4. It expands my teaching ministry. Writing gives me an opportunity to share my ideas with people I have never met. I am always honored when someone I don’t know buys one of my books, appreciates what I have written and tells me about it in person or with an email. This past summer I was visiting my daughter’s family in Idaho and joined them for Sunday church. There on the resource rack was a pamphlet on church discipline. I glanced at the bibliography and there was listed my book, Your Guide to Church Discipline (Bethany House)! It was a joy to meet the pastor who had not only read my book, but he quoted from it in his pamphlet. It is a privilege to contribute to God’s kingdom work through writing and publishing.
  5. I want to leave a legacy. I recently retired after forty wonderful years of teaching at Western Seminary. I don’t know how many more years of ministry are yet ahead, but I know that when I leave this earth for heaven, my books will still be on readers’ bookshelves around the country. It is encouraging to know that my family, friends and students will benefit from my books long after I am gone. An ancient Egyptian sage commented about the authors of books. He said, “Their mortuary service is gone; their tombstones are covered with dirt; and their graves are forgotten. But their names are still pronounced because of their books which they made, since they were good and the memory of him who made them lasts to the limits of eternity (J. Blenkinsopp, Wisdom and Law in the OT (Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 7).
  6. It’s easy to get published. Years ago, getting a book published was a difficult and drawn out process. You began by contacting a publisher and submitting a manuscript proposal. If the publisher expressed interest, you wrote and submitted the manuscript. Then you waited months (sometimes years) for their response. Next came the “rejection letter.” Not willing to give up, you repeated the process until you found an editor who believed your book could make the publisher money. Publishing has changed a great deal through modern technology. Now days, just about anyone can publish a book. There are lots of companies which will help you self-publish your book. My last four books were published through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a company associated with Amazon. To publish with KDP, you write and edit the manuscript, choose the title, create the cover, decide on the price and royalty, and select your channels for promotion and distribution. Kindle Direct Publishing will make your book available on Amazon. When someone buys your book, it is printed, packaged and shipped. And the royalty payment is promptly deposited in your bank account. Self-publishing is not just an easier process. It also benefits your readers. Because you are doing the editorial work yourself, rather than paying the publisher, self-publishing allows your book to be sold at a more reasonable price.
  7. I like sharing my books. It is a privilege to place into someone’s hands a book which you have labored over for years, knowing that what you have written will bless and benefit them. My books are sold on-line through Amazon, but I also make them available at speaking engagements. And I give lots of books away. I give books to friends, family members, students and others who might benefit from my writings. Kindle Direct Publishing allows authors to buy their books at cost. This enables authors to give someone a book for about the price of a Hallmark greeting card! And I think that a book will be on the recipient’s shelf longer than a pretty card.

At the end of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon offered a warning to writers and readers of books. He said, “The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearing to the body” (Ecc. 12:12). So true! There is always another book to write and another book to read. Heeding Solomon’s warning, I’ll try to live my life with reasonable balance, both writing and reading books.

Meet Tony, A Traveling Man

I spent last week backpacking in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, enjoying the beauty of God’s creation and taking a break from the media that so dominates modern life. Passing by Sisters, Oregon, on my way to the trailhead I notice backpackers hitch hiking back to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) after resupplying in town. On my way back to Portland after my wilderness hike, I noticed a young man with a backpack looking for a ride. Assuming he was a PCT “through hiker” on his way to the Canadian border and looking for a ride back to the trail, I stopped and picked him up.

The young man thanked me for stopping and introduced himself as “Tony.” I soon discovered that Tony was not a backpacker, but a “traveling man” who was on his way to Portland! I had planned to listen to my audio book, “Dead Wake,” about the sinking of the Lusitania, on my drive home, but now I found myself with an unexpected opportunity. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with having Tony in the car with me for the next three and a half hours, but I decided it was a divine appointment and was determined to make the best of it. Perhaps I could be helpful and maybe share about the Lord.

Tony, 28 years old, had been “traveling” for the last three years. I discovered that “traveling” meant he was, what most of us would call, “homeless.” His parents had divorced and he had not seen his dad or mom for some years. Tony had the smell of cigarette smoke on his clothes and a faint scent of alcohol on his breath. He confided that he struggled with “anxiety issues.” Over the next three hours I got acquainted with Tony. During our conversation, I asked Tony some questions that he was more than willing to answer. His answers gave me new insight into the lifestyle and experience of homeless people.

How do you feel about your lifestyle? “I love it! I have hitch hiked all over the United States.”

What concerns do you have? I really don’t have any worries.

Have you ever had a job? I had a job for about two weeks once. I didn’t really like it.

Would you like to change your life for a more stable situation? No, not really.

What about food? People give me food. I hang out by a restaurant and people bring out their left overs in a little box. Often they are willing to give it to me. I eat when food is available.

Where do you sleep? I have a comfortable sleeping bag and I sleep in the little nooks in front of stores. The owners don’t mind.

How about bathrooms and showers? There are shelters where I can get a free shower and wash up. It isn’t a problem. I don’t like shelters because that is where the Meth heads go and they steal from you.

What about health? Can you get medical help? My grandmother said she had never paid a medical bill in her life. There is really nothing they can do to you if you don’t pay. I do have free medical insurance from a state where I lived for a while. They still carry my medical insurance.

How do get along without a mailing address? I can use a library computer for email and Facebook. If I need to get a regular letter, I can give the address of a shelter and pick up my mail there.

Do you have a phone? Yes, my aunt got me a free phone from the government. I can only use it to make calls. It doesn’t work for Facebook.

Can you go back home to California where your dad lives? No, if I do, I’ll probably be arrested and jailed since I have skipped court appointments in the past. Someday I’ll take care of it. I was jailed in Florida for three months for possession of some pot. Jails give me anxiety.

Do you do drugs? I tried meth, but that is bad stuff. Meth people are grimy and bad. I would never use heroin. I won’t stick a needle in my arm. I use pot and drink beer. I have tried to quit drinking but keep going back to it. I need to go to a place to get help with my addiction. I got sober in jail, but later started drinking again.

How do you get your money? People give me money. I hold up a funny sign and make people laugh. A guy in Las Vegas gave me ten dollars and said, “You made me laugh.” Most of the people in Las Vegas are drunk and give you money.

Why are you going to Portland? I have friends in Portland and the cops are nice. My friends look out for me and don’t steal from me. The cops in other places I have traveled are mean. They will tell me, “Get out of town now or we’ll put you in jail. Just keep hiking up the road.” I had an “open container” in Portland and the cop just shook his head and turned away. Usually, they make you pour it out. Here they are nice.

Where are you going after your time in Portland? I am planning on going to the Oregon coast and then maybe to Seattle.

What about your spiritual life, Tony? Do you believe in God? Yes, I believe in God. I think he looks out for me.

What do you think about Jesus? Have you accepted him as your Savior? I am not sure that Jesus is God. I have accepted him many times when people ask me to.

Do you have a Bible? I have a copy I can give you. I don’t have room in my pack for one, but I can get a Bible if I need one. People are always offering me a Bible.

Before we arrived in Portland, I said a prayer for Tony. He seemed appreciative. He asked to be dropped off on Hawthorne Blvd. where he hangs out with his friends near the Safeway store. Tony is a homeless, traveling man who seems to enjoy life as it is. He is just one of many like him hanging out with friends, sleeping on the street, accepting free food, free money, free medical care and a free phone. He doesn’t have ID and, of course, pays no taxes. Portland has become a magnet for people like Tony, who appreciate the friendly atmosphere, lax law enforcement and easy living on the streets of the Rose City. Amazingly, Tony is my neighbor! He living today on Hawthorne Blvd., a little more than a mile from my house.

I am not sure how to help someone like Tony. He likes the way he is living and is not interested in a lifestyle change. Giving him money will, by his own admission, go for cigarettes, booze and pot. He doesn’t want to go to a homeless shelter because of the kinds of people who hang out there. Perhaps the best we can offer Tony is a ride, a prayer and a listening ear. And maybe few granola bars. That’s what I did for Tony yesterday.

A Visit to the Holy Land

One of the best investments a Christian can make is a pilgrimage to the holy land–the land of the Bible. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, called the Holy Land pilgrimage “the Fifth Gospel.” You read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from the Bible, but you read the “Fifth Gospel” as you walk the land.

Bargil Pixner, Benedictine monk and New Testament scholar adds this thought,  “Five Gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books. One you will find in the land they call ‘holy.’ Read the fifth gospel, and the world of the four will open to you.”

These quotations confirm my own opinion that there is nothing that will strengthen a person’s spiritual life and enhance their understanding of the Bible as much as a visit to the Holy Land–the land of Israel. My first visit was in 1973 when my wife Nancy and I spent the summer studying in Jerusalem at the Institute of Holy Land Studies, renamed the Jerusalem University College. Although I had already been through three years of biblical studies at Western Seminary, my summer in Israel greatly enhanced my understanding of Scripture giving me an appreciation of the geographical, cultural and archaeological backgrounds that are so essential to understanding the Bible as the original readers did.

In the Biblical period, Jewish people set aside one tenth of their annual income to go to Jerusalem to attend religious feasts three times a year (Deut. 16:16). Sadly, many Christians will go a life without visiting Jerusalem even once! Many will object to the costs of travel. Tours range from four to five thousand dollars depending on the season and quality of accommodations. That’s not pocket change! Yet many people will spend 25-30 thousand dollars on a new car, 10-20 thousand dollars on a year of college, and 2-4 thousand dollars on a computer and never make the financial investment to experience the land of the Bible.

Because of the importance of experiencing Israel my wife and I determined to make sure our children got to Israel at least once. So we invested $15,000 in a family trip to Israel. I rented a car and was the tour leader for three weeks introducing my children to the land where Jesus lived, taught, died and rose again. I could have spent the money on a car or a cruise or a remodeling project. But I knew that nothing would enhance their Christian faith like an encounter with the land of the Bible. It is one of the best investments I have ever made in the spiritual life of my family.

Over the years it has been my privilege to take hundreds of students and a dozen seminary professors to Israel. I don’t need to see Masada again or take another dip in the Dead Sea. But I take students to Israel because I know it is the very best thing I can do to help them love God and His Word more than ever before. A tour of Israel is not a vacation. It is a time of intensive Bible study, spiritual growth and prayer. So don’t go through life without doing what Jesus so often did. Go up to Jerusalem!

Teaching my students in Israel

Tomorrow I leave again for another trip to Israel where I will have the privilege of teaching the Bible to a group of Holy Land travelers. I am confident that it will be a life defining experience for them. Maybe I’ll see you there soon.


The Most Important Thing–Love

Grandfather Laney

My thoughts take me back to a conversation I had with my grandfather when I was a young man preparing for the ministry. Grandfather Laney was a strong Christian and taught Sunday School at the United Methodist Church in Kennewick, Washington. My conversation with him on this occasion centered on what was the most important thing for a Christian. Grandfather argued that the most important thing to believe and practice was Christ’s law of love. As a young seminary student I agreed that Christ’s command to love one another was important, but a notch above that was sound doctrine. I argued that knowing and teaching the truth of God’s Word was the highest and ultimate priority for a Christian leader. Well, I didn’t convince grandfather of my viewpoint, and he didn’t convince me of his. But over the last 40 years of my teaching career, I have wondered if grandfather Laney might have been right.

What is love?

Love means different things to different people. In fact, there are four different words for love in the Greek language. The Greek noun eros is used to refer to a love between lovers—a sexual love. This is the kind of love we read about in the Song of Solomon. A different Greek word is used to describe the relationship between parents and children. The Greek word storge speaks of a family affection. The Greek word philia is the most common word for love in the Greek language and refers to the affection between friends. It is a friendship kind of love. This word describes the love that Jesus had for his friend Lazarus.

The most frequent word for love in the New Testament is agape. This word is used 120 times in the Bible as a noun and 130 times as a verb. Writers of the New Testament pretty much abandoned the other words for love in the Greek language and focused on agape. This is the love described in John 3:16, which reads according to the Laney paraphrase: “For God loved the world in such a manner as this, that he gave His unique, one of a kind son, so that everyone who trusts and relies on Him might not perish forever, but have abundant and eternal life.”

The reason that the early Christians fastened onto the word agape is that it describes a love not just for lovers, family, or friends. It is a love which extends beyond the most familiar relationships to our neighbors, to our enemies and to the whole world.

Agape love is God’s kind of love because it is from Him and characterizes those who know Him (1 Jn. 4:7). I define agape as an unconditional acceptance; a deliberate and sacrificial commitment to the ultimate good of another person. Jesus commanded his followers to demonstrate this agape toward one another. Using the verbal form of the word, He said, “agape one another, just as I have agaped you” (John 15:12).

Jesus further explained that this agape love would be the distinguishing mark of the Christian. He said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have agape for one another” (John 13:35). My study of this Greek word and its use in the New Testament returned my thoughts to the words of Grandfather Laney. Was Christ’s law of love the highest Christian priority? Could grandfather have been right?

The Priority of Love

I thought of my grandfather again as I studied 1 Corinthians 13. In this classic text on agape love, Paul informs us that whatever gifts one has and sacrifices one endures, it all adds up to zero if agape is lacking (1 Cor. 13:1-3). In describing the nature of agape, Paul uses 14 descriptive statements to demonstrate that love is not just an emotion or feeling. Agape love is a sacrificial commitment to the ultimate good of another person (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

Contrasting the permanent gifts with the temporal gifts, Paul informs us that agape love is the only thing that never fails or fades (1 Cor. 13:8). Paul concludes in 1 Corinthians 13 by declaring that while tongues will cease and prophecy will come to an end, agape love is to be expressed throughout eternity. And while love will share a place with faith and hope, the greatest of these three virtues is agape. Chalk up another point for Grandfather Laney!

The Pattern of Love

Since agape love is so important, we need to know how to practice it. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians provides us with some helpful instruction on the pattern for agape love. In Ephesian chapter 4 Paul gives the believers a series of imperatives on how to live a God honoring life. Then he sums it all up with an exhortation, “Walk in agape love, just as Christ loved you and gave Himself up for us as an offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). Paul is telling believers to practice the pattern of love exhibited in Jesus Christ when he laid down His life as a sacrifice for our sins. Once again, we see that this agape love is not a mere feeling or even an affection.

Agape love is a sacrificial love—a sacrificial commitment to the ultimate wellbeing of another person. And Paul emphasizes that those who have benefited from Christ’s sacrifice, are called to sacrifice themselves for others. Grandfather Laney, I am beginning to see a theme here.

The Goal of Love

Another text came to my attention as I was reflecting on my grandfather’s words. Paul left his young protégé Timothy to lead the church at Ephesus he went on to Macedonia. But Paul’s concerns for Timothy led him to write the young pastor a letter. And in First Timothy 1:5 Paul told Timothy, “The goal, (the telos) of our instruction is agape, from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”

Now Paul, isn’t the goal of our instruction “sound doctrine”? Certainly with all the false teaching going on at Ephesus, sound doctrine has to be the number one priority. But for Paul, this is not his number one objective! While sound doctrine is certainly important and should not be neglected, Paul’s ultimate goal—the telos of his instruction—is agape.

Notice that Paul’s goal is not that his disciples will become expert exegetes. Now I hope many of my students will become expert exegetes and won’t be saying ten years from now, “I have forgotten all my Hebrew and most of my Greek!”

And notice also that Paul’s goal is not that you all become powerful preachers. Now I hope that some of my students will become powerful preachers. I hope they will be preaching sermons that are exegetically based, expositionally delivered and practically applied.

Notice too that Paul’s goal is not that seminary graduates become mission minded. But of course I hope that all Christians will be mission minded, seeing the world as God sees it, with an attitude of love, compassion and the offer of forgiveness.

And finally, Paul’s stated goal is not that Western graduates will be caring and compassionate counselors. But I certainly hope all those trained in Western Seminary’s counseling program will be caring and compassionate as they listen to their clients, offering them support and understanding.

All these skills and abilities I have mentioned are good and can be useful in the ministry. But they are not Paul’s stated goal. They are not his ultimate objective. For Paul, the goal of his instruction is agape love – a sacrificial commitment.

Paul wants us to know something of the source and character of agape love. Paul knows that this kind of agape love can come only from “a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith.” A pure heart is one that has been cleansed by the “washing of regeneration” (Tit. 3:5). A good conscience is a conscience that is unfettered by an unconfessed accumulation of sin (1 John 1:9). A sincere faith is a genuine faith, a faith that is without hypocrisy, reflecting an attitude of the heart, not merely the movement of the lips.

I have been thinking about these words: a pure heart, a good conscience, a sincere faith. What Paul is talking about here is character. My colleague, Dr. Norm Thiesen commented recently that with some people their talent exceeds their character. Don’t let that be said of you. Character always trumps talent over the long haul.

Whom shall we love?

If the goal of Paul’s instruction is love, to whom should this love be expressed? Jesus taught, “Love God with heart, soul, and mind” (Matt. 22:37). Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives” (Eph. 5:25). Christians are called to love one another (John 13:34-35). And we are to love our neighbor as yourself (Lk. 10:27) And Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).

I spent my career at Western Seminary teaching the Bible. And I’m confident that my students will remember some of the things I have shared with them. But I hope they always remember, that the telos, the ultimate goal of our instruction is love. Tops on the list of course objectives and curricular competencies is agape love. And while there are many gifts and virtues we honor in our Christian community, I join my grandfather Laney in saying that the greatest of them all is love.

St. Jerome records that in his old age the Apostle John used to be carried in the arms of his disciples into church. And the only thing he would say to the congregation was, “Little children, love one another.” Finally, they asked the aged John, “Master, why do you always say this?” He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.” Wherever God leads you in your life and ministry, take with you God’s love with you.

And as Paul wrote to Timothy, the goal of our instruction has been, and will always be agape love, from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.

An Interview with Retired Western Seminary Faculty Member, J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney

Carl, How did you happen to come to Western Seminary?

It was the fall of 1970 when I drove into the parking lot on the east side of Milliken Hall, then a men’s dormitory, and unloaded my typewriter, a few books and a picture of my sweetheart to begin my studies at Western Seminary. I completed my Master of Divinity in 1973 and headed for Israel with my wife, Nancy, where we spent the summer studying at the Jerusalem University College. It was life defining experience for both of us! Returning to Western for further studies, I wrote thesis on “The Geopolitics of the Judean Hill Country,” graduating with my Th.M. in the spring of 1974.

I longed to dig deeper into the Bible and was accepted into the Th.D. program at Dallas Seminary. My studies in Bible Exposition commenced in the fall of 1974 with Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost as my major professor. During my program at Dallas I was given the opportunity to develop my teaching skills as an Instructor Bible Exposition.

Approaching the end of my doctoral program, I began wondering about where I might use my seminary training. One summer afternoon while visiting Portland, I stopped by the office of Dr. Robert Cook, Western’s academic dean. He graciously invited me into his office for a visit. Then he asked, “Would you be interested in returning to Western to teach biblical literature?” Wow! I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough! After faculty interview in the early spring of 1977, I received a letter from President Earl D. Radmacher inviting me to join the faculty as an Instructor in Biblical Literature. One year led to two, and two to three, and a lifetime later I am looking back on an amazing, forty-year career at Western Seminary!

You have been teaching the Bible at Western for forty years. Do you have a philosophy of education that has guided you as a faculty member?

Yes, the verse in Scripture that describes my philosophy of teaching is Ezra 7:10, “For Ezra set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” First, note that Ezra made the study of the Word his priority. He “set his heart” to seek God’s truth. But he was not content with mere head knowledge. Ezra put the lessons he discovered into practice. He was a doer of the Word, not merely a self-deluded hearer (James 1:22). Finally, I see that Ezra taught God’s Word to the people of Israel. Is significant that Ezra applied the truth personally before teaching publicly. You can’t teach what you haven’t studied, and you can’t teach effectively what you have not first applied in your own life. So my philosophy of education is to follow the example of Ezra. I seek God’s truth, apply in to my own life, and then share it with others.

What have you enjoyed most about your teaching career?

I have certainly enjoyed the opportunities my faculty position has given me to research, write, and prepare lectures and resources for my students. But what I have enjoyed most is the privilege of taking students to Israel. In Western’s Israel Study Program, we spend three weeks in the Land of the Bible hiking, swimming, exploring, studying and sharing meals together. This program provides opportunity for biblical discipleship which I define as “companionship in preparation for leadership.” The Israel Study Program is a life defining experience for students, and I have been privileged to share that experience with them.

In addition to teaching, what other ministry activities have you enjoyed?

In addition to my class room ministry at Western, it has been my privilege to serve as interim pastor in a dozen different churches. The longest interim assignment was three years in a Chinese church where my sermons were translated into Cantonese! I love to preach God’s Word and to shepherd God’s people. Weddings, funerals, baptisms and hospital visitation have provided me with a breadth of ministry experience to help my students prepare for their future opportunities. I have also had the privilege of ministering overseas, teaching in seminaries in the Philippines and the Netherlands, and of course, the Jerusalem University College.

What part has your wife, Nancy, played in your seminary career?

Besides being my number one encourager, Nancy has been involved in Western’s women’s ministry, meeting with seminary wives and hosting students in our home. And before our children were raised, she “kept the home fires burning” when I was teaching for Western in Seattle or ministering overseas. There have been three great women in my life—my mother, my mother-in-law, and my wife Nancy. I am who I am today because of their love, their support and their prayers.

What was the most difficult time for you as a prof?

My first year as a prof was undoubtedly the most difficult year academically. I was preparing lectures on material I had studied, but never taught. And the difference between studying and teaching is huge! I remember one night during my first semester after hosting a group of students in our home. I stepped outside alone, looked into the night sky, and wondered if I could really do this. It was the closest thing to a panic attack I had ever experienced. Standing in front of a classroom of student and trying to intelligently and practically teach God’s Word is harder than it looks! I have often left my office for the classroom remembering Psalm 34:4, “I sought the LORD, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

Do you have a favorite book of the Bible to teach? What has been your favorite class to teach?

I have often been asked, “What is your favorite book of the Bible?” My answer is, “Which ever book I happen to be teaching!” They are all my favorites! I love the Torah where God introduces Himself to humanity. I love the historical books where God is at work among His people. I love the Poetic books where God’s truth is revealed through rich imagery and metaphor. I love this Prophets where God addresses His people through his spokesmen. I love the Gospels which introduce us to Jesus. I love the history of the advance of the Kingdom of God in the book of Acts. I love the Epistles have enriched my life through sound doctrine and application of principles. And I love the Book of Revelation which gives me hope for the future. I am a Bible guy. It’s all my favorite! I just love teaching the Bible!

Do you have any advice for seminary students today?

My advice to seminary students who are preparing for pastoral ministry is to dig deep into your language studies. One of the best things that seminary offers you is an opportunity to study Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible (along with Aramaic). There is no need to be fearful of the languages. If I can learn and use the languages, anyone can. There is nothing that has enriched my personal study of the Word more than the ability to read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. If you are going to teach the Bible to others, you don’t want to go through life just reading about what someone else has discovered from the original languages. With the biblical languages, you can make those discoveries yourself! And if you know Hebrew and Greek, you won’t need as many commentaries. You will be writing your own commentary as you study the original text.

One other suggestion for students is to get to know at least one prof in a more personal way during your seminary career. Stop by a prof’s office and introduce yourself. Invite prof to lunch or to your home for dinner. Ask a prof if you can ride along with him or her on their next ministry trip. Not only will a personal relationship with a prof enrich your seminary experience, you will have someone who knows you well enough to write a reference letter when you are applying for a ministry position!

Is there anything in your career that you wish you had done differently? 

When I was finishing my doctoral program at Dallas Seminary, I thought about the possibility of being an overseas missionary, a church pastor, or a Bible/Seminary professor. Honestly, I wanted to do all three. But in the providence of God, I was led to return to Western Seminary. But as a faculty member at Western, I have had opportunities to serve as a short term missionary and an interim pastor. God gave me my heart’s desire to minister the Word in a variety of contexts and opportunities. The only thing I might have done differently is to have spent more time with my children while they were growing up. I was busy writing books, traveling and teaching. All of a sudden, my kids grew up and left home! I cherish the times we had together and only wish it had been more.

How is retirement? What are you doing to keep busy?

I really don’t like the word “retirement” because it seems to suggests leaving the ministry. As long as God gives me breath, I want to be serving the Lord! But reaching the age of seventy, Nancy and I agreed that it was time for a transition. I wanted to step aside from Western and give the younger profs the opportunities the Lord had afforded me. And so I concluded my career at Western on July 31, 2018. I felt that I had prepared myself financially for this transition. But I realize now that I had not prepared myself emotionally for the separation from Western.

People ask me, “How do you like retirement?” Honestly, I don’t like it. I love to teach and I miss the opportunities I had to mentor students and interact with them in the classroom. Retiring from Western left me without an office, without a position, and without fellowship with seminary colleagues and staff whom I have grown to love. “Retirement” is harder than you think! And yet, God is graciously meeting these needs in other ways. I have been invited to Seminary events, new student dinners, and to lunch with faculty friends. I have established an office in my basement and am busy writing a new book (“A Short History of Israel”). I am teaching a Sunday School class on Genesis 1-12 and preparing for two Israel trips this spring. I have had a wonderful career teaching the Bible at Western Seminary, and for that I am very thankful. And by God’s grace, I will continue to enjoy a full life with travel, ministry, recreation and visits with friends and family.