Honor, Live Long, and Prosper

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Exodus 20:12 (NIV)

Americans are obsessed, or so it seems, with living a long and healthy life. It should come as no surprise then that products promising the same enjoy widespread popularity. For example, Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, a book that suggests herbal remedies can cure diabetes and cancer, sold five million copies by the close of 2005. Reflecting on the phenomenon one doctor has said, “Some people appear to be under the assumption that they’re going to be the very first person to cheat death.” Now certainly there is nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy. But for all of the time and effort spent on vitamins, whole foods, and Pilates instructors, relatively fewer folks seem to pay attention to a more traditional and time-honored path for long life: honoring one’s parents.

The Fifth Commandment holds a unique place within the Decalogue. As the first directive in the so-called “second table” of the commandments, the Lord prioritized this act of obedience as the foundation of all righteous human-to-human relationships. The Hebrew verb for honor (kabad) carries with it the connotation of “making something weighty.” In other words, in God’s eyes, it is a very serious thing to give your parents the respect—or gravitas—they deserve. This act of obedience is even to be done without reference to the quality of a parent’s parenting. The Fifth Commandment is to be followed at all times and all places and especially when a child becomes an adult. Even when a parent provokes his son to anger or asks him to do something wrong, God will always provide a way for the child to honor the parent, even if obedience, strictly defined, is not an option.

Honoring one’s father and mother provides the necessary support for creating a culture of life. For the parent, it secures the right not to be humiliated by his offspring in the prime of his life, nor to be abandoned or left destitute in his senior years. For the child, the rewards are even more compelling. The Apostle Paul calls the fifth injunction in the Decalogue “the first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2); namely, that “you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” The text means exactly what it says. Vibrant life and spiritual prosperity characterize those who live in accordance with God’s word in this respect. Anyone who embraces this divine vision for reality should expect to experience the “good life” in its fullest and most satisfying sense.

In a culture that despises both the very old and the very young, citizens of the modern world need to hear the lessons of the Fifth Commandment afresh. Commitment to the family does not end when one leaves home. This means that children, particularly when they are grown, must diligently work to protect and care for their father and mother. Never should it be said that saints of God just wasted away in quiet desperation and loneliness, cut off from their children.

When the world looks upon the sons and daughters of the kingdom of God, they should be able to see a host of blessed and honored parents. There are certainly not many guarantees in this life, but the Bible promises a rich and fulfilling existence to those individuals who place the needs of their mothers and fathers above their own.

The Quaint Pony Express Pledge

As Mark Twain remembered in his account of a stagecoach trip through the West,

Stamp_US_Pony_Express_25cHere he comes! Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so. In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling—weaving towards us, nearer and nearer—growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined—nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs come faintly to the ear—another instant, a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but not reply, a man and a horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm.[i]

It was a Pony Express rider, one of over 200 who carried mail on the 2,000-mile route between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California—men with names like Lafayette Bolwinkle and G. G. Sangiovanni, and with nicknames like “Irish Tom” and “Pony Bob.”[ii] Though it ran for little more than a year (trumped by the telegraph, which could deliver a message in seconds rather than days), it became a treasured item of American lore.

Less well known is the religious devotion of a partner in the parent firm—Alexander Majors—and his efforts to instill a high moral standard in his company.[iii] Consider the riders’ oath:

I . . . do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.[iv]

Furthermore, each rider and each way station was issued a special, calf-bound[v] edition of the Bible, supplied by the American Bible Society.[vi] Of course, riders were known to “backslide” from the pledge, the Bible was not typically at the forefront of their reading list, and enforcement was difficult in the sparsely populated wilderness,[vii] but Majors gave it his best, and it helped.

Prior to the Pony Express, Majors was a successful “freighter” in the West, with 100 wagons, 1,200 oxen, and 120 employees. Each worker had to pledge he would “treat animals in his care with kindness, use no profanity, stay sober at all times, and behave like a gentleman while in his employ.” Majors “rested his oxen and men from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, and held worship services for his men on Sunday.”[viii] He noted, “When they saw I was willing to pay them the same price as that paid for work including the Sabbath day, and let them rest on that day, it made them feel I was consistent in requiring them to conduct themselves as gentlemen.”[ix]

“Buffalo Bill” Cody, himself a rider, featured Pony Express reenactments in his “Wild West” show. Praising his former employer, Cody reported, “Every man, from wagon-boss and teamster down to rustler and messenger-boy, seemed anxious to gain the good will of Alexander Majors and to hold it, and to-day he has fewer foes than any one I know.”[x]

Of course, these quaint pledges and practices would run afoul of lawyers and stockholders today, but there are new enforced pieties in the land, legal codes normalizing homosexuality and requiring funds for abortifacients. And biblically-sensitive companies such as Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby (both of which, following Majors, honor the Lord’s Day) take a beating from the commissars of political correctness, whether the head of HHS or the mayor of Chicago. Majors may have made it tough for ruffians to get a job in his company, but now the government is making it tough for committed Christians to field a company in the first place.

 

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Endnotes

[i] Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872 (New York: Airmont Books, 1967), 39.

[ii] “Pony Express Riders,” Pony Express Museum Website, http://ponyexpress.org/pony-express-riders/ (accessed February 4, 2013).

[iii] “A Calvinist, Majors was a deeply religious man, a fundamentalist who read the Bible daily” [Christopher Corbett, Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 22].

[iv] “Pony Express Historical Timeline,” Pony Express Museum Website, http://ponyexpress.org/pony-express-historical-timeline/ (accessed February 4, 2013).

[v] Alexander Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier: Alexander Majors’ Memoirs of a Lifetime on the Border, ed. Colonel Prestiss Ingraham, with a Preface by “Buffalo Bill” (General W. F. Cody) (Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Company, 1893), Kindle edition, location 2732, 58%.

[vi] “Did ABS Print a Special Pony Express Bible?” Record Online: Digital Magazine of the American Bible Society, http://record.americanbible.org/content/bible-qa/did-abs-print-special-pony-express-bible (accessed February 4, 2013).

[vii] Corbett, Orphans Preferred, 101.

[viii] Anthony Godfrey, Historic Resource Study: Pony Express National Historic Trail (United States Department of the Interior/National Park Service, August 1994), 32.

[ix] Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier, Kindle edition, location 989, 21%.

[x] William Cody, Foreword to Majors, Seventy Years on the Frontier. Kindle edition, location 89, 2%.

All the (Future) President’s Men—John Adams (1735-1826)

John AdamsIn 1774, as Britain and the American colonies verbally sparred over the issues of taxation, representation, and national identity, John Adams wrote a chronology of the conflict entitled Novanglus: A History of the Dispute with America from Its Origin to the Present Time. The future President of the United States realized that a corrupt people could never sustain a moral debate with King George III, much less a civilized society. Directing his comments specifically to his local context, Adams called upon the obvious source of rescue: he called upon pastors of his day to address the sins of both the state and individuals while simultaneously calling them to articulate a vision for public virtue.

It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example,—if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions, how much soever it may move the gall of Massachusetts?

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Endnote

John Adams, “Novanglus: A History of the Dispute with America, from Its Origin in 1754, to the Present Time”; cited in Norman Cousins, ed., “In God We Trust”: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 89-90.

Losing the Faith in One Generation

7 And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years. . . 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. 11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger.

Judges 2:7-12 (ESV)

ParentingGertrude Himmelfarb’s Marriage and Morals among the Victorians traces the abandonment of Christianity by certain descendants of the evangelical Clapham Sect, whose members included Henry Thornton and Hannah More. Indeed, so far did their offspring move from Christ that within two generations, Thornton’s great-grandson and More’s goddaughter’s great-nephew, E. M. Forster was a member of the socially dissolute Bloomsbury Set, which included Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.

Israel knew all about the failure to pass on God’s ways across several generations. Having brought the people into the promised land of Canaan, led them through many victories, and set a good example of trust in God, Joshua died when he was 110 years old (v. 8). After his death, other contemporaries lived on for a while, but then they too died out (v. 10a). God’s people served God faithfully as long as these eye-witnesses of God’s goodness to Israel preserved the memory of God’s greatness (v. 7). But when Joshua’s generation died out, their descendants lacked that personal knowledge of God and promptly forgot all that the Lord had done for their nation (v. 10b).

The new generation’s ignorance led them into idolatry that kindled God’s anger against them (v. 11-12), beginning a cycle repeated throughout Judges (cf. 2:14-19). Somehow Joshua’s generation failed to keep the record of all that God had done for them alive. They had forgotten that the first responsibility of parents after loving God is to store God’s word in their hearts and pass it on to their children (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:18-19). Hence, the parents’ failure to pass on to their children a testimony to the reality of God’s grace and power (cf. Joel 1:3) resulted in a “generational gap.”

If God’s people do not constantly ponder and pass on the good news of salvation, their children’s faith will last no longer than the morning dew. The Bible contains no guarantee that salvation automatically transfers from parent to child, a fact that should sober even Christ’s most faithful servants. Certainly, a mother or father’s life of holiness and biblical instruction are means by which boys and girls come to know the Lord. But family religion alone is not enough. One becomes a Christian by faith and grows as a Christian only through a deeply personal walk with Jesus, and a life that is hidden in God. It is a lesson so obvious that it is easy to forget. And it most definitely is a leading reason why Europe—once a thoroughly Christian continent—now copes with the emptiness of secularism’s spectre and countless young people who embrace no belief save nihilism.

Parents and pastors know within their own families and churches how easily people presume to live on their parents’ spiritual capital. While the Clapham evangelicals are praiseworthy for their gospel stand on many social ills in Victorian England, not least child labor and the slave trade, their descendants stand as reminders that Christ cannot be received by osmosis.

When Was Jesus Born?

Almost universally today, Christians throughout the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. Why do Christians celebrate on this day and is it a good idea to do so?

To begin with, nowhere in the Gospels is there any clear indication of the time of year Jesus was born. Perhaps the most specific time marker in Scripture is the statement in Luke 2:2 that Jesus was born during a census while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But we don’t know precisely what year that census occurred, much less what month. Furthermore, the few other clues that are there do not necessarily point toward a December date. For example, some have suggested that the presence of the shepherds sleeping with their flocks at night is unlikely to have occurred in December, since, even in Palestine, it is a cold time of year. In fact, for roughly three hundred years after Jesus was born no one celebrated His birth on December 25. When some Christians, such as Clement of Alexandria, first began trying to figure out the date of His birth much later, they tended to put it sometime in the spring, not the winter, but even then it there was no consensus on the right date.

When, then, did Christians begin celebrating Christmas on December 25? The answer is we don’t know exactly, though it was definitely sometime in the fourth century and in the city of Rome. The earliest records we have for a celebration on December 25 date from this time and come from the imperial capital. From Rome the celebration gradually spread eastward throughout the Roman Empire. Evidence that it was a recent innovation is that in the year 386 the renowned preacher John Chrysostom pointed out in a Christmas sermon that the festival of Christmas was less than ten years old in Antioch, but had already become very popular. The celebration must have deeply resonated with already existing Christian devotion, for it spread further until it reached the furthest corners of the Christian Church.

Some have attempted to argue that the Christian festival of Christmas on December 25 has pagan roots because the birthday of Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) was celebrated on the same day. This charge is true insofar as Sol Invictus was indeed celebrated on this day. However, the truth of the matter is that we simply don’t know whether the birth of Jesus or the birth of Sol Invictus was the earlier celebration, since the first clear evidence for both celebrations comes from the same time period. The first calendar to record Jesus’ birth as December 25 dates from the year 354, and it likewise preserves the first clear reference to the celebration of the birth of Sol Invictus on the same day. We likely will never know whether the Christians borrowed from the pagans or vice versa, but in the end it matters little for Christian theology and worship.

So does it matter what day you celebrate Christmas or even if you celebrate it at all? Well, in one sense the answer is no, since Christians seem to have gotten by perfectly fine for the first three hundred years without knowing or being too concerned about when Jesus was born. However, in another sense, celebrating Jesus’ birth serves the important purpose of sanctifying the calendar. In classical Rome the year was full of festivals, nearly all of which were tied to the worship of pagan gods. When Christians began trying to reshape the imagination of believers throughout the Empire, they realized that they had to come up with their own calendar to mark the important points in the year. Celebrations such as Christmas on December 25, Epiphany on January 6, and Lent in the spring were intended to remind Christians that the most important events in all of human history had occurred in the 33-year span of Jesus’ life. Henceforth, even the calendar would become an instrument for proclaiming the good news of the birth, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. And that is a message that never grows old, but deserves to be retold with each new year.

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Note: This article was originally published on the BibleMesh Blog on December 13, 2012.

The Compromised Church of Balaam

But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.

Revelation 2:14 (ESV)

Patriotism and nationalism can quickly slide into idolatry. Throughout history, emperors and dictators, from the Caesars to Napoleon, have demanded they be worshipped. Today, many ruthless states demand unthinking devotion and allegiance from their citizens. Those who resist are brutalized or executed. In stark contrast, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ alone is the Lord of the nations. When the Church turns its nation’s culture into an idol or adopts a “my country right or wrong attitude,” God goes to war against the Church.

PulpitThe church in Pergamum lapsed into such cultural idolatry. Pergamum was proud of its civil religion. They erected the first temple to worship Augustus Caesar in Asia Minor (“Satan’s throne” in v. 13). Imperial worship included animal sacrifice to honor the supposedly-divine Caesar, as well as such Greek deities, Zeus, Asclepius, Demeter, and Dionysus. Sexual intercourse accompanied these pagan rituals. Apparently, the Christians in Pergamum joined in the activities, revealing the decline in courage since the days of Antipas, the faithful witness who became a martyr because of his faith (v. 13).

Christ refers to this cultural compromise as the work of Balaam, the ancient, pagan prophet who led Israel astray to serve Baal and engage in sexually immoral practices with the Moabites (v. 14; Num. 25:1-3, 31:8). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus observed that Balaam knew that if he could corrupt Israel’s morals, God would surely judge them. The church compromised their worship and sexual ethics by living and abiding by the customs of their pagan neighbors. Deluded and confused, they thought they could view God and Caesar as relative equals. By the sword of His mouth—His Word—Jesus promised a battle against those inside the church, namely the Nicolaitans, who preached harmony with compromise and wickedness (vv. 15-16).

In certain quarters today, the Church has reached a concord with Balaam’s spiritual descendents. Sexual immorality runs rampant in both pulpit and pew. Self-described tolerant Christians and denominations countenance pagan ritual alongside the worship of the one true God—most notably in “interfaith” gatherings. Others confuse national identity with vital Christianity when in fact all earthly kingdoms will recede and collapse before the kingdom of our God and Christ (Rev. 11:15). When forced to choose, will the Church deny its cultural Caesars or the Lord Jesus Christ? As the opening words of the letter to the church at Pergamum states, Christ bears the “sharp two-edged sword.” Churches which toy with the idolatry of Balaam are forewarned.