The Spiritual Temperature of Cities

Temperatures

Cities have spiritual temperatures.  So suggests a recent joint study from the Barna Group and the American Bible Society which ranked 100 cities on their “Bible mindedness.” http://cities.barna.org/americas-most-bible-minded-cities-2014/

Now let’s back up. We know from the Bible that cities have spiritual temperatures. Babylon was a city-state in Mesopotamia which destroyed Jerusalem.  It came to personify rebellion against God. Whereas Jerusalem was the city of God, where his temple was. So Babylon had one temperature, Jerusalem generally had another.

But actually, it’s not that simple. Because the Bible portrays Jerusalem itself in many different spiritual states.  Under David it was a united and spiritually vibrant, but by Zephaniah’s day Jerusalem is described as a rebellious, defiled and oppressing city.

There are some cities Jesus taught in that were receptive to him.  But there were also the unrepentant cities of Matthew 11—“Woe to you, Chorazin. . . Bethsaida”  They were hardened to the mighty works of God.    And remember Jesus weeping over the Jerusalem of his day?  He said, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23.37).

Okay, back to Barna.  It ranked 100 cities in the United States for their “Bible mindedness.”  On top were Chattanooga, TN, Birmingham, AL, Lynchburg, VA, Springfield, MO, Shreveport, LA, Charlotte NC, Greenville, SC, Little Rock, Ark, and Jackson, MS with Mississippi being the most religious state in America.

By contract, the least Bible minded cites included, Phoenix, AZ, San Francisco, Boston, Albany NY and Providence RI.

Now, granted, studies like this raise questions.  How do we define Bible mindedness?  Is regular Bible reading and belief in the Bible’s accuracy an adequate spiritual indicator?  It doesn’t tell us if such people really embrace Christ or live out the gospel.

But I believe such studies do have value.  They remind us that cities do in fact have spiritual climates.  Any pastor with working spiritual antennae knows this.

Wisdom in ministry consists in knowing that temperature—doing a little cultural exegesis to understand the climate.  As a pastor, one week a year I would gather my pastoral staff  and we’d talk about the cultural climate of our city and how we should faithfully minister the gospel in light of that.

Knowing the spiritual temperature of a city will influence how we do ministry. The church I recently pastored was in Denver, Colorado.  Denver is near the bottom of Barna’s list.   Now I live in Orlando.  Orlando is higher on the list.  We live on the edge of the Bible belt.  In some of our more secularized cities, people know less about Christianity and you have to take that into consideration when you are preaching and doing evangelism.  Evangelism in a post-Christian city has to deal with the fact that people are less familiar with the Bible’s story, or they’ve been exposed to it, but reject it.

Reformed Theological Seminary has 6 campuses.  Two of them—our Jackson campus and our Charlotte campus, are in the top ten of Barna’s list of Bible minded cities.   Orlando, where our campus is, sorry to say, comes in at #69 on the list.  And Washington DC, where we have another campus, comes in at 80 on the list!

The point is, cities such as Birmingham and San Francisco have very different spiritual climates.  And while people’s spiritual needs are the same everywhere, and the gospel is the same, and Christ is the same yesterday today and forever, it helps to understand  the climate were ministering in, just as Paul did in Athens.

The good news is that a strong Christian presence can influence the spiritual temperature of a city.  The Barna report notes that most of the more Bible minded cities have sizeable Christian institutions of higher learning there.   According to Barna, their influence may explain some of the impact.  Just as RTS has discovered  that when we plant a seminary campus in a city there is usually a church planting movement that springs up near the campus, which then affects the city.  RTS has helped birth many churches and ministries all over the country, but especially here in Central Florida,

While Christians know that “here in this world we have no lasting city,” we also have a long tradition of “seeking the good of the city” where God puts us.  Not simply by doing good works, but by letting the light of the gospel shine from our churches in word and deed.  That will have an impact on the spiritual temperature of any city.

Posted in America, church, Culture, discipleship, gospel, Missions and evangelism, The Church | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Reformed Classics You Should Know: The Westminster Shorter Catechism

Title_ShorterCatechism

In every generation, one of the most critical tasks of the church is to pass on the truth of God’s Word to the next generation. This usually takes place through evangelism, adult education, and the diligent teaching of children.

In not too many years, our children will replace us as guardians of the Christian faith. Will they have a clear grasp of the truth?

Throughout its history, the church has often used a tool called ‘catechisms’ to help pass on the faith. A catechism is a booklet of questions and answers, designed to teach key doctrines. Children not only read and reflect on them, but also commit them to memory.

There was a time when catechisms were routinely used in the church and family, parents were considered the primary spiritual teachers of their children, and pastors were there to assist them. It was during the Reformation that the practice of explicitly “catechizing” children and the laity aimed toward raising up a new generation of Word-shaped people.

But catechisms have largely been abandoned in our time. Today in many churches, memorization is frowned upon, doctrinal instruction of children is out, and “edutainment” is in. We shy away from these older teaching tools. . . and to our own detriment.

In my own church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, we have two catechisms—the larger and the shorter Westminster catechisms, along with a confession—The Westminster Confession of Faith, which explains what we believe. But it’s The Shorter Westminster Catechism that I want to bring to your attention. It’s a classic you should know about.

In the opinion of theologian B.B. Warfield, the Westminster Assembly left to posterity not only “the most thoroughly thought-out statement ever penned of the elements of evangelical religion,” but also one which breathes “the finest fragrance of spiritual religion.” Their most influential work, The Shorter Catechism, was intended as a an introduction to the Christian faith.

It was written in 1646-7, when the Puritans briefly captured the British Parliament, and has played a vital role in churches ever since. It was adopted by Presbyterians. But Baptists and Congregationalists also used a slightly altered version of The Shorter Catechism as well (such as The Baptist Catechism of 1677).

Perhaps the most significant example of this is The Shorter Catechism’s appearance in America’s New England Primer, America’s first school text book (used in our country from 1690-1890). Which is to say, for two hundred years, generations of Americans were shaped not only by a deeply Biblical education, but a particularly reformed Biblical education. The Primer taught generations of Americans how to read. When Benjamin Harris introduced it in 1690, he had a brilliant idea. Why not use the Bible and Christian truth to teach children to read. It sure beats the Dick and Jane books I was raised on!

Listen to this, from The New England Primer, 1843 edition “Our Puritan Fathers brought The Shorter Catechism with them across the ocean and laid it on the same shelf with the family Bible. They taught it diligently to their children. . . .If in this catechism the true and fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are expressed in fewer and better words and definitions than in any other summary, why ought we not now to train up a child in the way he should go?—why not now put him in possession of the richest treasure that ever human wisdom and industry accumulated to draw from?”

When you look at The New England Primer, one is immediately struck by how massively we have drifted as a nation in our view of law, education and the importance of the Bible.

Fortunately, this great reformed classic and helpful teaching tool is still available to us in both modern and classic editions. (The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English / The Shorter Catechism with Scripture Proofs)

There is even a children’s version of this aimed at kids ages 3-6th grade which can make a nice supplement to children’s Sunday school (Catechism for Young Children)

What do you find in The Shorter Catechism?
• It all begins with the magisterial statement, that the purpose of life, the chief end of everything, is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
• Its outline is shaped by the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
• It gives succinct definitions, such as Question 4: What is God?   “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
• It speaks of God’s sovereignty in describing his works of creation and providence.
• It reminds us with stark realism of the fall and its consequences–vividly describing our condition as one of “sin and misery”.
• It gives us a simple grid to interpret the entire Bible through the concept of covenants.
• It helps us understand Christ our redeemer by simply explaining his person, natures, offices, and states.
• It reviews the Spirit’s role in applying redemption and the benefits of Christ to our soul, by defining effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification.
• It spells out the duty God requires of us by explaining his moral law, the Ten Commandments.
• It tells of the saving grace of God for salvation that is offered in the gospel
• It gives basic instruction on prayer through The Lord’s Prayer.
• It details the outward means whereby Christ builds us up: the Word, prayer, and sacraments.

I did not grow up with catechisms. In fact I was wary of them. I’d never heard of The Shorter Catechism until I was in college. The way I got to know this spiritual gem was at Regent College where theologian J.I. Packer seemed to smuggle the Westminster  catechisms into most of his classes and make us memorize them! For that I am deeply grateful.

This  teaching tool added simple depth to my faith and the faith of my children and churches. It set basic outlines and definitions in mind to help build a basic Biblical and doctrinal literacy.

Like other reformed churches, this catechism is part of the Constitution of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. According to the EPC Book of Order, “The home and the church should also make special provision for instructing the children in the Bible and in the Church Catechisms. To this end Sessions should establish and conduct under their authority Sunday schools and Bible classes, and adopt such other methods as may be found helpful. The Session shall encourage the parents of the Church to guide their children in the catechizing and disciplining of them in the Christian religion.” (BOO, Chapter Four, 4-5)

I’m not sure how many Elder boards take this charge seriously. Many Presbyterian churches have lost touch with their reformed roots. But there are wonderful resources available to help us pass on the truth of God’s Word to the next generation, and this is one of them.

Whether it is The Westminster Shorter Catechism, or The Heidelberg Catechism, or even Luther’s Catechism, these are Reformation treasures that we desperately need to rediscover.

Posted in church, church history, Education, Presbyterians, Reformed Classics, Theology, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Year Ahead: 2014

2014 the year ahead

The new year is upon us and it is time again to think ahead and anticipate. What will the year hold?

At the end of each year I like to look down the road and be somewhat ready for what we will be thinking about and dealing with. My lists are by no means comprehensive. They are not forecasts either. God alone knows what actually will happen. But by keeping an ear to the ground, watching culture, and doing a bit of homework, one can catch a glimpse of the year ahead. My hope always is that this might help you think wisely about the coming year, especially for those who have ministries of teaching, preaching and disciple making.

Some Faith Trends in Our Culture
• Faith makes a hit at the movies: This Spring movies like Noah, Heaven is for Real, Son of God and Mary of Nazareth are released, but, as always, amidst a mountain of cultural slush like Godzilla and Fifty Shades of Grey.
• Mega church pastor angst: Younger leaders worry about the role of mega church pastors, given all the recent transitions, scandals and crashes. They wonder what the “one great leader” model does to a person/church and how it can be improved.
• Low pastor esteem: Trust in clergy reaches record lows, according to a recent Gallup Poll. The overall trend for clergy has sloped downward since 2001, a contrast to 30 years ago when community and congregation held pastors in higher esteem. Trust, integrity and honesty are issues.
• Pope Francis is held up as religious model:   As TIME’s man of the year, Francis’ influence and example are being promoted both within and outside the Roman Catholic Church.
• America “the hardest mission field”: That’s what some are saying. In our post-Christendom era of material abundance, outreach is a big challenge. There are numerous barriers to deal with before many people will set foot in a church.
• Growth of multiple venues in one church: More churches are experimenting with multiple venues and campuses.
• The issue of leadership: The Economist writes, “in 2014, the world will crave leadership!” Demands and expectations of pastors are higher than they were 25 years ago. Churches are looking for pastors that can preach and lead. More smaller churches are hiring executive pastors.

Some Global Trends
• A mobile phone world: In 2014 the number of mobile phone subscriptions will overtake the number of human beings according to the International Telecommunications Union. Much of the growth is in Africa and Asia. This will lead to more people getting online.
• Big data and big data protection: Our planet is awash in information known as big data. Data constitutes a vast new natural resource. More companies aim at capturing data and applying predictive analytics, rather than just relying on past performance. This raises privacy and worries about eavesdropping.
• American neo-isolationism: President Obama’s cautious retreat and unwillingness to be global sheriff are emboldening American rivals from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. These developments make a more risky global scene in 2014.
• Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East: If Iran gets a nuclear weapon we will see a destabilizing nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
• World poverty drops: A recent Oxford University study on poverty and human development says some of the world’s most impoverished people are becoming significantly less poor. It predicts that if development trends continue, countries with the most poor could see acute poverty erased within 20 years
• The Asian shift: According to The Economist, this year Asia overtakes North America to become the continent with the most millionaires. The growing world influence of Asian markets and China will continue.
• Robotic revolution speeds up: We will see the use of robots spreading beyond factories into daily life. Newer, smarter, more sophisticated models are being used for everything from unmanned military vehicles to walking dogs to TSAbots at airports..

Some National Trends
• More short term economic recovery: Americans are looking for a better year in 2014. While some still talk about a coming collapse, general 2014 predictions are for the US economy to grow by 3%, the jobless rate to fall, and inflation to be at 2%.
• Political blame game heats up: As we approach the mid-term elections, there will be lots of blaming going on. Expect some kind of Obama backlash. Congress, and especially the Senate is up for grabs.
• Fractured: Many signs in 2013 showed America becoming increasingly diverse and fractured (Sanford, FL, national politics, studies like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart). This will accelerate. Since society lacks the glue to fix this, there will be ample opportunities to demonstrate the power of the gospel and the peace of Christ.
• With retirement, 80 is the new 60: The workforce is graying as seniors put off retirement due to life span increases and not having saved enough. Retirement at 65 looks more like a pipe dream as older adults are now the fastest growing part of the US labor force.
• Narco-business comes out of the shadows: it used to be the preserve of criminals, but with the new legality, prohibition is giving way to regulation and profit. States approving medical marijuana will expand. Legalization of production and sales will grow.
• Technology’s limits: Business journals report that talking to colleagues will make a comeback. Companies are worried that emailing and working virtually are creating a work force that does not know each other.
• Space tech wonders: This year we may see the dawn of a new space age for commercial aviation and an audacious space mission hoping to land a spacecraft on a comet!
• RNA breakthroughs: Project ENCODE, involving RNA research and interference, will bring new momentum to the field of genetics. RNA, which controls what cells do, is said to be the “Cinderella” of genetics and may deliver the promises made for DNA in the Human Genome Project leading to cures in genetic diseases and disorders.

Some Important Anniversaries and Dates
Jan 12      Affordable Care Act takes affect. America’s health market will change drastically.
Jan 28     1200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne. The “father of Europe” brought stability and renaissance after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
Feb 4        Facebook, with more than a billion members, celebrates its 10th birthday signaling the continued growth of social media, even as polls show teen enthusiasm for Facebook waning.
March/April      Lent begins (March 5), Palm Sunday (April 13), Easter (April 20)
April 26      Shakespeare’s 450th birthday
April 8-10      Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, KY
June 20th      800th anniversary of Oxford University receiving its charter.
June 23-4      The Scots commemorate the700th anniversary of their victory over the English in battle of Bannockburn.
June      General Assemblies, etc.: OPC GA (June 4-10 Grand Rapids), SBC Convention
(June 10-11 Baltimore ), PCA GA (17-20 Houston), EPC (June 18-21 Knoxville), Gospel Coalition Women’s National Conference (27-29 Orlando).
July 2      50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act
Aug 8      500th Anniversary of John Knox’ birth
Aug 19     2000th Anniversary of death of Augustus Caesar, 1st Roman emperor.
Aug        The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The “war to end all wars” became the horror of the early 20th century.
Nov 4    Mid-term elections in the US
Nov 9      25th anniversary of fall of Berlin wall
Nov 30      First Sunday of Advent
Dec 3      25th anniversary of end of Cold war
Dec 27   300th anniversary of birth of George Whitefield.

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The Four Days of Christmas: One Pastor’s “Coping Mechanisms” For Doing Christmas Wisely

“Boy it must suck to be a pastor in December,” a friend once said to me. He was thinking—funerals in December, too many devotionals and sermons to give, too many Christmas events to attend, four Christmas Eve services, little time for family on Christmas eve, and being exhausted on Christmas Day. “Who would want to do that?” he said, as he offered this commentary on my December.

Well, it is certainly busy. In fact, it’s crazy busy. In fact, if we are not careful, it can be disastrous personally and for my family. But it doesn’t “suck.” It is challenging. It is crammed. Yet it’s an extraordinary season of the year, filled with immense spiritual opportunities.

But after failing at December for too many years, through experience I managed to come up with a number of “coping mechanisms” that helped keep this month both sane and meaningful for me and my family.

One thing Christina and I did was take a weekend away from the church just before Advent. We usually spent a night or two at a hotel. It was my time to tell her I loved her and warn her yet again of the rush of December for those in ministry. We had quiet time and planned our family schedule for the Advent-Christmas season. This helped put us on the same page.

But even better than that was coming up with what we called “The Four Days of Christmas.” Four—not twelve? I know it sounds odd. Hear me out.

Like everybody else, in the early years of our family with four young children, we tried to cram too much Christmas into one Christmas Day. You know how it goes: the kids would get up early and tumble down the stairs head first. They opened stockings. By the time we got to the gifts, a numbness had already set in. They were over-saturated. When our cousins gathered for dinner, if they happened to bring gifts, I knew we were in trouble. My kids were glassy-eyed, over-stimulated and ungrateful. The next day, we went through the morning after Christmas syndrome like everyone else, and couldn’t believe how quickly the whole thing was over. It was too much for one day. We were all exhausted.

Of course, all this is complicated for a pastor’s family because you have to prepare a message and be at church on Christmas Eve. Throw in multiple services on December 24th and there is no time for much of anything on that day but church. For instance, I had four Christmas Eve services: 4.00, 5.30, 7.30 and 9.30. For our family, it was even more complex, because my wife is a violinist, and musicians play a lot in December—including Christmas Eve. We both got home around midnight!

Granted, most people don’t have to deal with ministry obligations like this. But I am convinced that for those who do, there are wiser, more sane ways to “do Christmas” than we typically do. So what we did was stretch out Christmas to four days!

There is good precedent for this. After all, in the history of the church, Christmas is a season, not just a day. The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, as the 25th has is sometimes called, is part of the larger season of Christmastide, which, for some, lasts twelve days. You’ve heard of “the twelve days of Christmas,” haven’t you?

So how did we cope with the rush of Christmas? We stretched it out for four days. We did our family Christmas Eve on the evening of December 23rd. The kids called it “Christmas Adam.” (“You know dad,” they would say, “the 24th is ‘Christmas Eve’ the 23rd can be ‘Christmas Adam.’”). Okay, I relented. So, with just our family, we had a special dinner on the 23rd, and usually watched a movie afterwards. That is our first day of Christmas—our family Christmas eve.

The second day of Christmas is the 24th. The 24th for our family is church day. We encourage everyone to be active in services on Christmas Eve. Our children were inevitably involved in some of the services, either singing in choirs or doing public readings of Scripture. But they all know mom and dad have lots of responsibilities that day. We encourage them to participate as well. This has the wonderful effect of putting the spotlight on Jesus that day.

On Christmas Day, (the third day of Christmas) our kids get their stockings only. In the afternoon, we usually have dinner with grandparents and cousins.

It is the day after Christmas, (known as Boxing Day in England) that we all open our presents. This is our fourth day of Christmas.

Now, you may think that this is cruel and unusual punishment to children—i.e. that we do not allow them to open their gifts on Christmas Day. Truth is, they got used to it quickly. Our children still prefer it this way. They like that mom and dad have slowed Christmas down, without cutting church out, or family time. We actually have more time celebrating the holiday than we used to.

I’ll admit, for those who are not in ministry, this plan may sound rather strange. But for those who are, you will recognize it not only as one person’s creative road out of Christmas chaos, but also as a wonderful way to distress the day. It actually gives us more Christmas in Christmas, more family time, ample church time, and on the evening of the 25th, when it was over for most people, we have more to come.

True, it’s not exactly The Twelve Days of Christmas. But it did move our family in the right direction.

May I commend a similar creative wisdom to you if you find your Christmases too chaotic?

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The Best Stories of Christmas: THE CHRISTMAS EVE TRUCE OF 1914

1914 Christmas Eve Truce

One of my favorite Christmas stories recalls the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914. Do you know the story? Over the next few years, as we commemorate the 100 year anniversary of World War I, you will hear about it.

This month I’ve been thinking a lot about traces of the gospel in the Christmas stories we love. I find such traces when I hear about Christmas in those trenches.

A hundred years ago, the nations of Europe went to war with optimism and fanfare. Everyone thought it would be a short affair, that they would be home by Christmas. But it was not to be. Europe descended into chaos. It was the beginning of a long war. Each side was out to crush the enemy. The British sought to rid the map of every trace of German and Hun. The French went to rescue the children of Alsace. And the Germans were out to crush the English. These sentiments met the new technology of modern war on the fields of France and Belgium. This was the war that introduced tanks, chemical warfare, aerial bombardment, and made machine guns common. At the outset, soldiers charged with fixed bayonets and the tactics of a pre-modern age. Then commanders watched in horror as a third of their men would be mowed down in five minutes. Digging trenches was the only way to survive the sweeping machine gun fire.

Life in the trenches was grim. There they endured heavy artillery and poison gas. They became infested with lice and rats. Disease took hold. When temperatures dropped, soldiers froze. Snipers picked off those who raised their heads.

The war claimed some 16 million lives, some 30 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

Between the trenches was a no man’s land littered with barbed wire and death.

But in December 1914, when hopes for a quick resolution faded, something strange happened.

As Christmas day approached, on several places along the front lines, German Christmas trees began to appear above the trenches with tiny candles flickering in the night. Scottish pipers began playing carols. Some British soldiers started singing Christmas songs. German soldiers responded with Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. British solders joined in—silent night holy night.

A few British officers ventured over to the German line against orders and arranged a truce that extended to Christmas Day. All of a sudden soldiers left trenches and intermingled. They exchanged—chocolates, cakes, tins of meat, and cigarettes. Family photos were shared. The dead were buried. In one place, a joint worship service was held for their fallen brothers. There were even soccer games on no man’s land.

We’re told that as many as 100,000 soldiers participated in this unofficial Christmas truce. The weapons of war fell silent. For two days there was peace and the spirit of Christmas reigned. Enemies became friends.

Why is this one of my favorite Christmas stories? For two reasons. First, because the only thing that could stop the Great War was Christmas—remembering the nativity of Jesus Christ—the prince of peace. Scripture says of Christ that “he himself is our peace.” He is the one who has the power to reconcile those who are alienated. He breaks down dividing walls of hostility. Not simply by emanating warm fuzzies. It happens by the shed blood of Christ on the cross. That’s what kills hostilities and brings deep peace. (Ephesians 2.13-16)

But there’s a second reason why this is a favorite Christmas story. You see, both of my grandfathers fought in World War I. One was German and fought for Germany. The other was Scottish and fought for Britain. They spent several Christmases in those horrid trenches and wrote home about it. Both were wounded by shrapnel or mustard gas. Both dreamed of going home. Miraculously, both survived.

I do not know if my grandfathers experienced this truce. But I know they did experience Christmas in the trenches. And I know that Christ transformed both of their lives.

Sadly, the Christmas truce of 1914 ended. On December 26th, armies went back to the trenches. Cooler heads prevailed. The slaughter recommenced. Those who initiated the truce were replaced.

But the one thing that stilled those guns was Christmas. And it was the Christ of Christmas and Calvary who transformed the bitterness of my grandfathers. The wall of hostility between my German and British ancestors was taken down. Both later immigrated to America. Both ended up at the same church, which is where my parents met. Both families began to build on a new foundation—because he, that is, Jesus, was their peace.

That story of the Christmas truce of 1914 contains echoes of the gospel which can still be heard.

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The Lights of Christmas – Take5 Radio Broadcasts

Below are new episodes of the TAKE 5 series on the subject of “The Lights of Christmas”, which airs weekdays on WTLN 950 AM Radio at 6:55 am & 5:55 pm and is now available on Android, iOS, or Windows Mobile. For more information visit rts.edu/takefive.

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The Best Stories at Christmas: Ben Hur

Ben Hur

It always intrigues me that the best Christmas stories are filled with traces of the gospel. That’s true of A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, the story of Nicholas, and even How the Grinch Stole Christmas. One of my favorite stories is Ben Hur, written in 1880 by George Wallace, and made into an epic film in 1959.

This movie received 12 Oscar nominations and won 11 academy awards! That’s only been equaled two other times in cinema history—in 1997 with Titanic and 2003 with The Lord of the Rings. The film had some 25,000 roles, 300 sets, and constructed the largest set ever built for a motion picture—used for one of the greatest action scenes in film history (the chariot race).

Some people don’t consider Ben Hur a Christmas film. I contend it is—for three reasons. First, it opens with a scene of the nativity. That alone should put it in the category of Christmas films. Second, a central character appearing throughout the film is a man named Balthasar–one of the magi. In this story, he returns to Palestine and helps narrate the cohesiveness of Jesus’ life. He’s there after his birth, observes Jesus’ public ministry, and even appears at the crucifixion.

Third, it is Balthasar whom the author uses to creatively connect the dots in the life of Christ. Observing Jesus’ death, Balthasar says, “He has taken the world of our sins onto Himself. To this end He said he was born in that stable, where I first saw him. For this cause He came into the world.”

Of course, this is poetic license, but it is effective and helps the viewer catch the wider point—Jesus’ birth and death are tied together by a divine purpose!

The book and film tell the story of a man named Judah Ben Hur (played in the film by Charlton Heston). He is a Judean nobleman who is betrayed by his boyhood friend—Messala, who grows up to become the Roman Tribune of Judah. When Ben Hur refuses to submit to Roman rule, Messala condemns his old friend to a Roman slave galley. Along the way, Ben Hur tells God that if he is allowed to live, he wants to take vengeance on the man who wronged him. The story then is about Ben Hur’s descent into hatred because of the injustices committed against him and his people by Messala and the Romans. Ben Hur’s wife Esther complains “You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil! Hatred is turning you to stone. It is as though you had become Messala!”

In his story, Ben Hur has three encounters with Jesus. As a Roman captive, he encounters Jesus while being dragged on the highway that passes near Nazareth.  As Ben Hur cries to God for help, Jesus, who is observing the procession of slaves, offers him water to drink. Ben Hur has no idea who Jesus is, but realizes he has just met someone special.

This leads to Ben Hur’s brutal service as a slave rowing on a Roman ship. When the Roman ship is destroyed in battle, Ben Hur saves the life of a general and gains the favor of Rome. Eventually Ben Hur is able to return to Judah to search for his mother and sister, who were also condemned to slavery.

In Judah he encounters Jesus a second time, but from a distance. He observes Jesus’ ministry with skepticism. Only when he encounters Jesus for a third time, on the way to the cross, do things start to change. At the crucifixion, we come to the height of irony in the story. There stands Ben Hur who has been falsely accused of a crime of which he was innocent. But he has devoted his life to revenge. But now he sees another man who has been falsely accused, but instead of pursuing revenge, this man pleads for the forgiveness of those who have accused him.

Ben Hur says, “Almost at the moment He died, I heard him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”and I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.”

This is not just a story of personal redemption. The gospel integrity of the story comes because his moment of personal redemption coincides with the wider redemptive death of Jesus.  Both are affirmed in the story. Jesus has taken the world of our sins onto himself. Ben Hur learns that it is only through the power of being forgiven that we can forgo hatred and revenge and offer forgiveness to others.

In other words, Ben Hur’s transformation is rooted in the cross of Christ.

Look, lots of Christmas movies have transformation stories. Think of Scrooge, George Baily, and even the Grinch! But the transformation of Judah Ben Hur takes place because of Jesus himself. That gives this remarkable Christmas film an entirely different holiday gravitas.

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