De Los Muertos

Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.
~ Deuteronomy 14:1

… and other oddities

November 1 is the well-known Mexican holiday, The Day of the Dead. Customs may vary throughout Mexico, but generally it is a celebration of the dead. People build ofrendas in their homes to place pictures or some possessions of their deceased relatives. They may have flowers or burn candles on these altars. People gather around the graves of their deceased and eat meals featuring the favorite foods and drinks of the departed, and leave portions for them as well. They pray to and for their dead, dance in the streets, and calaveras are everywhere.

The holiday is typically associated with the Catholic holidays, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. However, the Catholic influence on such practices is more come lately, as the roots these observances go back much further to the pre-hispanic, indigenous peoples of Mexico. Odd beliefs, customs, and practices concerning the dead go even further back in the roots of paganism.

Pagan Roots and Fruits

We first encounter observances pertaining to the dead in the Bible among the Canaanites. The old covenant law gave specific warnings to Israel, forbidding them from taking up the pagan practices of the nations around them (Leviticus 19:26-31; 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1; 18:9-14; 26:12-15). We find there prohibitions against such as making offerings to or for the dead, body modifications for the dead, eating the blood to gain power of the dead, and consulting with diviners and such to communicate with the dead in order to learn the future or gain special knowledge outside of God’s natural revelation in creation or special revelation in his word.

Of course, the Jews of Israel were not impervious to these cultic practices concerning the dead. A perusal of the prophets finds the nation condemned for such things as offering their children in the fire and seeking commune with the dead (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Isaiah 47:12; Jeremiah 7:31-32; Ezekiel 23:37-39). By the time of the intertestamental period post-exile, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be offerings for the dead and prayers to and for the dead in Israel. The inclusion of such things is one of the reasons early churches rejected the intertestamental books as apocryphal, not including them in the canon of Scripture.

Various adaptations of pagan practices concerning the dead have persisted in church history. The practice of prayers to and for the dead eventually gave rise to the doctrine of purgatory and the idea of post-mortem atonement or absolution of sins. I hope that evangelical Christians can see all these things as the abominable pagan practices they are, regardless of the sanctified language, historied traditions, good intentions, or imaginative reasoning used to support them.

A Rose of Another Name

It is good to have such hope I suppose, but Christians really seem to struggle to get a handle on paganism. We can’t seem to figure out what it is exactly. For some, all you have to do is label something as pagan and that roundly condemns all instances of it and everyone within a fifty mile radius of it. You better steer clear of any twice-removed cousins who know a guy that has a friend who might have seen it or heard of it before. Of course, that is not any species of scriptural reasoning at all. It is more like the reasoning of a sweating fundamentalist evangelist at a southern summer campmeeting. He can preach agin’ anything. All he has to do is label it worldly and then quote a verse about not loving the world, and, boom, he’s got “bible” for preaching the devil out of y’all.

Calling something pagan or claiming it has pagan roots doesn’t accomplish anything. For instance, pagans have hunted and farmed as long as pagans have existed. They typically pray to their gods before and after their harvests. Does that mean farming and hunting are pagan practices? When a Christian engages in these activities and prays to the true and only God before after the harvests, is he committing paganism?

A pagan cuts down a tree, builds a fire to warm himself and bake bread, and with the rest he makes idols to worship (Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:2-5)? Pagans go outside and cut flowers or other greenery to bring into their homes. They may do so with observing certain rites and believing they are inviting the spirits of their ancestors into their homes to bring them favor. When a Christian cuts down a tree, builds a fire, warms himself, or bakes bread, is he practicing paganism? When a Christian man brings home a bouquet of beautiful flowers to his wife and she puts them in a vase on the dining room table, or they otherwise adorn their home with plants of God’s creation, have they committed abominations?

Paul would say, No (1 Timothy 4:3-5). The creation of God is good and is to be received and enjoyed with thanksgiving. All things are made by God and rightly belong to him (Psalms 24:1). Paul actually quoted that verse in 1 Corinthians 10:26 where in chapters 8-10 he is showing that meat sacrificed to idols is not tainted or inherently sinful. Paul wrote that those who have true knowledge understand that and that an idol is nothing in the world (1 Corinthians 8:4). Those chapters certainly help us sort out paganism for what it is. Paganism doesn’t create or own anything. Paganism perverts and corrupts what God has created and owns to use for abominable practices. But, pagan misuse doesn’t nullify a proper use.

Secret Sauce

Getting back to praying for the dead and other such odd practices, what should we make of it? Some may be tempted to apply Paul’s argument about meat sacrificed to idols and say, “Oh, we aren’t praying for the dead like that. We are not praying like pagans do. We don’t believe in purgatory or post-death atonement. We are merely praying retroactively, knowing that God has all power and time is nothing to him.” I’m tempted to ask, What then are you praying for? What are you asking God to do, or what you asking for to happen? Stripped back to the essence, this argument claims that pagans misuse prayers for the dead and these Christians are making a right use of prayers for the dead.

That argument fails and twists Scripture. We have already considered references where such practices for the dead are condemned as pagan abominations. God doesn’t give alternatives to those practices as if there were a right way to do it. No, he says don’t do it at all because you are “the children of the LORD your God,” and you are “an holy people unto the LORD thy God” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2). When it comes to plowing a field, there is a way to plow in sin (Proverbs 21:4) and a way to plow in faith (1 Corinthians 9:10). The plowing itself is neither sinful nor righteous. Paul said the same thing about eating the meat. But, praying for the dead is only sinful. There is no right way and wrong way to do it. The whole practice is abominable.

The various strange practices for the dead are all linked by the attempt to converse with a realm that is forbidden to us living people. When Moses gave Israel the law, he made clear that the source of knowledge for them and the source of requirements for them was not hidden or secreted away is some unreachable realm so that they would have to resort to unusual means to find it out (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). What God wants us to know is given to us in his written word (Deuteronomy 29:29). To pray for the dead is to meddle with God’s domain that is his alone. Our prayers are to be made to God alone and not after the manner of pagans (Matthew 6:5-13), and they are to be made for the people living in our time (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Well, Actually

We all struggle at times to distinguish wrong from right. When it comes to oraciones por los muertos, prayers for the dead, no struggle is required. It’s actually pagan. It’s actually wrong.

The Verse Snatcher

“And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through.”
~ Luke 12:39

Gather around children and I will tell you a story.

Back in the day before iPhones, iPads, iPods, and podcasts, I used to listen to a thing called a radio while driving. I had a cassette player, but it was broken. I turned the dial this way or that to pick up a radio station broadcasting over the air. Typically your choices were music on FM or talk on AM. I had worked late and as a consequence, I was driving home late one night. I tuned into the Christian radio station to listen while driving home. Some “preacher” was talking about how much power you could have if you only had enough faith.

I had been driving a while and not paying close attention to the radio. It was the standard serving of health and wealth prosperity preaching. I heard the “preacher” ask, “Did you know you can command God?” There was a dramatic pause for dramatic effect after the question, and it got my attention, dramatically. The preacher claimed that God said in the Bible, “Command me.” No reference was given for the quote, but it was explained that if a person just had enough faith, they could command God to do what they wanted.

Honesty compels me admit I’ve never won a Scripture Knowledge prize at Market Snodsbury, or any other market, snods, or bury. I was acquainted with all 66 and I had taken the torch to all dark recesses of my mind, but couldn’t emerge with a reference for that quote. I listened intently to the rest of the program, but the reference for that quote didn’t come up. Where did the Bible say that?

What We Have Here

It took a little while before I could fully apply myself to search for the verse, but I did find it. The phrase came from Isaiah 45:11: “concerning the works of my hands command ye me.” The verse begins, “Thus saith the Lord.” The huckster on the radio said that God said this, in the Bible, and it meant we could command God to do whatever we want, granted we have enough faith. I had verified that is what the Bible says, but is that what it means?

Simply reading the whole verse aroused suspicions that the prosperity peddler was playing fast and loose. Isaiah 45 comes after some of the strongest rebukes of idolatry and statements of God’s sovereign supremacy in all Scripture. Chapter 45 addresses Israel and asserts the supremacy of Yahweh and catalogs some of his sovereign works. The prophet Isaiah speaks as God’s mouth-piece and chides the children of Jacob for striving with their Lord. Verse 11 is a challenge to the complainers to counsel the Almighty if they have better ideas about how the universe should operate. It is similar to the challenge God issued to Job in Job 38:1-40:2. That challenge silenced Job’s complaining. The challenge in Isaiah is to bring the unbelieving of Jacob to silence and compel them to faith in the sovereign God and only Savior (Isaiah 45:18-25).

Suspicions confirmed, the radio rooster was wrong. What we have here is an example of prooftexting. Prooftexting involves taking little snatches of verses here and there and using them to support a teaching or practice. Technically, God did say the words, “command ye me.” If a person casually runs the reference, he finds the words and then assumes the teaching is right. However, with even a few verses of context, it is clear that God is not saying he will perform our commands to him as long we have enough faith or use the right incantations. This is merely one example of a pervasive practice.

.50 Cal Communication

I recently had a conversation that reminded me of that radio preacher I heard so long ago. My collocutor was delivering little snatches of verses from all over the Bible like he was firing rounds from a BMG. My side of the conversation went like, “Well … that doesn’t mean … but … wait a minute … yeah, but …” We had jumped from place to place and after a few minutes I wasn’t sure where we even were. What were we talking about?

It’s been a while since I have heard that sort of rapid-fire, machine gun delivery of verse portions. I’ve found it’s always a pretty sure sign of prooftexting. Delivering a multitude of verse snatches does not equal “having Bible” for your position. Ignoring the original contextual meaning of a passage and using it to say whatever you want is not equal to “Thus saith the Lord.” Remember that Satan liked to use God’s words to suit his own purposes (Matthew 4:6).

If you find yourself sitting under teaching and preaching that jumps all over the Bible to give rapid-fire verse portions, take heed how you hear. It’s a good sign you are hearing prooftexting, otherwise known by such terms as, misusing Scripture, mishandling God’s word, twisting Scripture, mangling the Bible, etc. Beware the verse snatcher.

What’s for Dinner?

It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word of God.
~ Luke 4:4

Whole Words

Have you ever eaten like a pig? Have you ever been so starved you ate like a hungry dog when food was set before you? Have you ever said you were starving? Were you actually starving? Probably not.

You’ve probably seen, or could imagine a scene where a starving man at last lays hold of food and he can’t shove food and drink in his mouth fast enough. What do you think would happen if you sat a starving man down to a feast of rich food? Reality is probably much different than what you imagine.

To Build a Bridge

In 1942, the Japanese captured Scotsman Ernest Gordon and others as they attempted to sail from Indonesia to Sri Lanka and took them back to Singapore. They were force marched to a prison camp in the jungles of Thailand. There Gordon was part of the labor crew forced to build the infamous bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge was a part of the Japanese railway to transport supplies and support their planned attack on India.

The conditions in that concentration camp were reportedly some of the worst known in World War II. Unlike many others, Gordon survived the prison camp for over three years until the Japanese surrender in 1945 and he was liberated. Gordon endured malnutrition and extended starvation among other unimaginable tortures and sufferings. They had been fed just enough to barely keep them alive. It was not enough for many. It was said that for every railroad tie laid there was one life lost among the prisoners. Gordon himself was even sent to the “death house” in the camp where they sent prisoners who were expected to die soon, and yet he still survived.

When Gordon was freed, he was taken to a British military hospital set up in Rangoon in Burma for treatment. Gordon described himself and the others as living skeletons and they did not fall on tables of food when they first arrived like hungry lions on a wildebeest. They did savor some fresh brewed tea and fresh baked white bread, but they couldn’t eat much of anything they did eat. What they could eat was nothing very solid and Gordon said it was quite a long time before he could eat any meat at all. These men had to be slowly brought back to life and relied on small portions of soft food and heavy doses of vitamin and mineral supplements. Most of us have never known starvation like that.

If you’re like me, you look forward to all the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table for the best meal of the year. You probably even skimp on breakfast and lunch in preparation. What if this Thanksgiving the family was all gathered around the table and Grandmother didn’t bring food to the table, but instead brought pictures of turkey and ham? What if instead of anyone eating anything, she read aloud some of her recipes for sweet potato pie and cranberry salad? Would you be pleased? Would you in any way be satisfied?

As Gordon and the other men survived extended starvation and malnutrition in the camp, they began to be more interested in pictures of food than pictures of calendar girls. They pinned up pictures of roast beef, apple pie, potatoes, and chocolate cake on the walls of the hut. They took great pleasure in listening to a recipe for angel food cake being read aloud, and were tantalized by the pronounced ingredients. Of course, they couldn’t have truly enjoyed what they most longed for if roast beef and potatoes along with hot apple pie were set in front of them. That’s the sad reality of their situation.

The Bible is Food

The Bible compared to food is a common metaphor in the Bible itself. The prophet Amos spoke the word of the Lord about a time coming when there would be a famine, not of bread and water, but a famine of “hearing the word of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). Job treasured God’s word more than his meal (Job 23:12). Jesus charged Peter to “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Paul charged the elders of the Ephesian church to “feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28). Peter echoed the charge he had received as he charged elders to “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2).

The food Christians need fed is the word of God. The primary job of preachers is to feed people the word of God. Bad preaching is bad food. A steady diet of bad preaching is like a steady diet of junk food. In twenty-one years of ministry I’ve been persistently dismayed by the amount of junk food preaching coming from pulpits. I’ve been even more dismayed by the number of people that prefer junk food preaching over wholesome and nourishing preaching. They pass by roast beef and potatoes preaching for potato chip and candy bar preaching.

Paul warned about people having itching ears and it shouldn’t surprise us when sugar-addicted children choose the line doling out sugar sticks as opposed to the line where real meat, fruit, and vegetables are well-prepared and served. It is sometimes the case that people prefer junk food preaching because they’re always chasing a sugar rush through light snacks that any grandma worthy of the matronly office would tell you will ruin your dinner.

Gordon and the bridge builders in the Valley of the Kwai would tell us it’s not always the case though. It is sometimes the case that people have been malnourished and starved for so long that they cannot tolerate hearty and substantial food. Their praise of bad preaching in churches and at conferences is more like Gordon’s men drooling over pictures of roast beef and potatoes while they were nowhere near ready to actually eat such a meal. Like POW’s, many Christians are so used to being fed only enough to barely sustain life that they are just not ready to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast.

A Prescribed Food Regiment

A preacher’s job is not to beat and berate such sick sheep who are ready to die, and to give them only a thick steak to eat would be cruel. Paul told Timothy that Christ’s servants must be gentle, patient, and meek to feed, or teach, God’s flock with the greatest care (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Being “right” doesn’t give you the right to be harsh, hot-headed, and rough instead. God’s flock needs to fed with the faithful word (Titus 1:9) in order to be healthy and mature properly (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Paul put it best when he charged Timothy, “Preach the word” (1 Timothy 4:1). That “word” means all the scripture, or the whole Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Faithful, persistent exposition of the Bible gives people God’s words and is like taking the best fresh ingredients and preparing a hearty meal. It is a proper balance of sweet and savory. It is a nourishing and satisfying blend of spices mixed with the raw ingredients.

You may have been suffering biblical starvation for so long that you’re more concerned with the idea of real food than you are actual food. For the good of your soul and the souls of your family, ditch the junk food and go to where you will be nourishingly fed God’s whole words (Proverbs 19:27).

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