Sunday, November 28, 2010

Listening in Prayer.

The moment of the sermon has been one of my most intense, dedicated, and deep times of prayer for many years now. When the man in the pulpit was my pastor, I labored in prayer for him, the congregation, and myself throughout those all-too-brief moments. We have 20-40 minutes together hearing the Word as the people of God - for some this will be all they get all week long. We will be relentlessly barraged with the collective wisdom of the world (which is no wisdom at all) the moment we leave this building. For many its gravity will be so massive that escape will require supernatural intervention. And so, in the moment of the sermon, I have prayed.

Now that I am the man in the pulpit, I desperately hope that they are praying through this moment. This is the Word of God, not a script. This is the inspired Word of God, not an opinion piece. This is the Word of God - the very food for the covenant people of God at this place in this moment - and we must hear Him. So we must pray.

In reading George Whitefield (1714-1770) I came across a sermon he preached about listening to sermons. Permit me to share his thoughts with you:

"If you would receive a blessing from the LORD, when you hear His word preached, pray to Him, both before, in, and after every sermon, to endue the minister with power to speak, and to grant you a will and ability to put in practice what he shall show from the book of GOD to be your duty.

This would be an excellent means to render the word preached effectual to the enlightening and enflaming your hearts; and without this, all the other means...will be in vain.

No doubt it was this consideration that made St. Paul so earnestly entreat his beloved Ephesians to intercede with God for him: 'Praying always, with all manner of prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and for me also, that I may open my mouth with boldness, to make known the mysteries of the Gospel.' And if so great an Apostle as St. Paul needed the prayers of his people, much more do those ministers who have only the ordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Besides, this would be a good proof that you sincerely desire to do, as well as know, the will of GOD. And it must highly profit both ministers and people; because GOD, through your prayers, will give them a double portion of His Holy Spirit, whereby they will be enabled to instruct you more fully in the things which pertain to the kingdom of GOD."

[Sermon 28, from Luke 8:18]

Dear friends, this is not a moment of entertainment. In Ezekiel 33:30-33 the prophet is told that those who are coming to hear him are listening to him as they listen to a love song. It sounds good, moves the emotions, but results in no change of life. We do not attend to the moment of the sermon to be amused - or ears tickled, as the case may be (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

When you arrive at the building, do not be distracted by the facility. Be swayed not by the multitude of "programs," "groups," events, etc. You need a Sword (Hebrews 6:17), not a Swiss Army knife. Attend in prayer, aware that God the Holy Spirit has drawn you to this place at this time. He has - Lord willing - moved the preacher to the needful text in the Book He Authored. He has guided this servant through the sermon preparation process - this servant who is in chains not of steel but enslaved by the fire in his soul. The exact individuals are in the room who need to be in the room at that moment - the lost, the saved, the confused, the hungry, and (Lord, please!) the spiritual masters who are already praying. This is a Spirit-saturated moment. His Book, His people, His purpose to be revealed. Do not waste this moment. Pray. Pray that in this great hour such a power will occur that is comparable to the first chapter of the Bible.

20-40 minutes out of 10,080 spent in the midst of wolves, devouring lions, angels of a false light, deluding spirits, and the doctrines of demons. These things will seem "good for food...a delight to the eyes, and...desirable to make one wise" (Genesis 3:6). These things will seem right to the emotions, the thoughts, and the mass opinion of humanity. "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12). If the way that feels right, seems correct, and is agreed upon by my friends leads to death, how can I know the right way? A way that originates outside the heart, mind, and collective wisdom of humanity must be in order. And so we gather to hear the Word of God spoken through His servant to His covenant people. We must pray for the potency of this moment. Through it God will move us toward conformity to His Beloved Son (Romans 8:29) and will reveal more fully His plan to sum up all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). We must have this Word. We don't need to hear stories, jokes, or thoughts about how wonderful we are (we'll get this the rest of the week). We need the Word.

So, beloved brothers and sisters, pray in the moment of the sermon.

If you're interested in reading on this subject a little more, consider Ken Ramey's Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God's Word (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010). It's a relatively short, easy read (and it isn't expensive). While there aren't many works on this topic, this one stands out in its clarity and focus.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Beside the Still Waters

Months ago I went up a nearby mountain on my bicycle, seeking to make the most of the time I had available to me and seeking some wisdom from the Lord.

I am not afraid of dealing with wolves. The one who is afraid is not a true shepherd (John 10:12,13).

  • "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15).

  • "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert..." (Acts 20:28-31).

The greatest threat the Church faces will always arise from within, not from without. The challenges to the Church from the government should give us opportunity to testify to the Kingdom of God in the name of Jesus Christ (Matthew 10:17,18). The perversion of the culture gives us the arena in which we shine as brilliant lights (Philippians 2:15,16). But a Church who has allowed wolves to define her character and mission is a sick Body.

We need more members of the Church who have an apostolic burden for the purity of the Church in her heart and actions: "I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:2,3). Wolves stand in the way and will show themselves when presented with the Word and admonitions to live that Word. Even the calmest and most loving voice, when spoken with the Word in the Holy Spirit, will cause the wolves to bear their teeth. They cannot abide the Word.

But there comes a time when the wolves are mostly gone (I don't think we'll ever be completely without them in this world, and there is a little bit of wolf in all of us disciples that keeps us humble). What does the shepherd do then? Scarred, weary, and tempted to swing at any sheep that used to stand near the wolves or even has a wolfish hair in its wool...but called to be a shepherd, and that means more than warring, even if for a good cause.

So I'm bicycling up a mountain, the physical effort mirrored in my heart, mind, and spirit as I beg the Lord to break me of this wolf-killing instinct in the midst of a flock ready for green pastures. There are times when the trail is so steep and rocky that the bicycle loses traction. I have to get off and walk it up ten, twenty feet. No amount of straining, sweating, roaring get the bicycle to surmount the unfriendly trail at these points. It's not the bicycle's shortcoming, I realize on one of these spots. It's just that I'm not strong enough...He's good at breaking me.

Thunder rumbles from the other side of the mountain. I stop and turn back, knowing trouble is on the way. On the way down the wind changes, the sun disappears behind clouds that tower over this mountain I'm on. Then the small hail - graupel - starts falling, thickly, quickly covering the ground and hiding the trail. Lightning flashes around me. Close (I am literally in the clouds of the storm as they wrap around the mountain). I make a wrong turn, stop, and find the trail again.

I am gripping the brakes so hard my hands hurt. My toes will be bruised for a month from keeping the bicycle from crashing on the steep, rough, and now white descent.

But in the midst of this I hear: "Lead them beside the still waters." Once, twice, over and over.

And so, here I am, five months later, leading beside the still waters. It takes emotional risk, careful compromise (not of doctrine but of "my way of wanting to do things"), and loving communication even with those that are resistant to being loved. I see Reformation, Revolution that I have desired for this people finally beginning to dawn (that grey with the fainted tinge of yellow or orange an hour before sunrise), and have a peace knowing it's not my Revolution. I don't even hear the howling of wolves now two valleys away, fading every day. Other shepherds have come with wisdom and a similar desire for green grass and still waters.

The, the God of the stormy mountain...has spoken once again to His stubborn servant. He's sometimes got to almost kill me to get through to me. I'm ready for the wolves should they rise again...I'm stronger, a little wiser (very little), hopefully more still and humble in spirit (time will tell). But now I'm delighting in these sheep, these beautiful and hungry sheep, delighting in watching them flourish beside the still waters.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The God Who Thunders

The storm. What do you see? What does it signify for you? In this storm, billowed up after sunset over the Black Range, I saw a great lesson in hermeneutics.

Great sky-mountains like this storm should take our minds back to places like 2 Samuel 22:2-51//Psalm 18:2-50, where we see the LORD flexing His mighty right arm on behalf of His anointed, David. This is great stuff. "He made darkness His hiding place, His canopy around Him, darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies. From the brightness before Him passed His thick clouds..." This is the God Who showed up to battle on behalf of the shepherd boy who was going to be King, who was of the line of the blessing of Abraham, who was a picture of the coming King of kings, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of David. This is a God we'd all like to have show up on our behalf in times of trouble.

Look at the introduction to this Psalm: "David spoke the words of this son to the LORD in the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul" (2 Samuel 22:1). Okay. Let's read the historical narrative of this event (1 Samuel 23:15-24:22; 26:1-27:12). Wait. Did you see the storm clouds of heaven? Neither did I. So what's going on here? Was David just exaggerating? A bit of bravado around the campfire after escaping the wrath of the king's insanity? That doesn't seem to reflect David's character. So what do we do with this?

Two options for the faithful Bible interpreter come to mind (there are probably more options, but these two seem most appropriate to me).

  • This is a vision given to the one who would be king-yet-prophet. Similar to Isaiah's vision of the heavenly throne room superimposed on the earthly temple (Isaiah 6). So, is it "real"? Not to get into ontology, but wouldn't the God Who created all things, though He is Spirit, be more "real" than all the stuff He created? While the material world is most real from our perspective, isn't the perspective of God the one that will ultimately be shown to be correct? I'm not saying that the material world is an illusion; I'm just saying we need to consider whose perspective we're going to use when viewing the world or considering contrasts between historical narratives and prophetic descriptions of events. In this case, both are true, faithful to the events, and utterly real. David saw aspects of the events through eyes of faith, with a vision given him by the grace and gifting of God.
  • I don't know how different this second option is, but...I would suggest that the faithful people of God always see God in all things as they are occurring. We may not all see thunderstorms in the events of our moments and days, but we still see God involved in everything. "God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom, upholds, directs, disposes and governs all creatures and things, from the greatest to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for which they were created...God, in His ordinary providence makes use of means, yet He is free to work outside, above, and against them at His pleasure" (Baptist Confession of 1689, 5.1,3). There is nothing that happens that does not have God's sovereign hand in it. As David was going through the events described in the historical narrative, in his spirit he discerned the storming God moving the events around him and through him to God's ultimate GLORY and honor. Later, singing of this sense he had throughout those days, the feeling in his spirit was best described as the unstoppable storm of the LORD.

Paul, in Colossians 3:3 (New Living Translation), tells the Church that "your real life is hidden with Christ in God." Whether in the difficulties (like Isaiah's leper-king Uzziah dying in 6:1) or the joys (David's reflections on God's deliverance), they would both confess: "The whole earth is filled with His glory!" (Isaiah 6:3). So will all believers who keep the "eyes of their heart" (Ephesians 1:18) focused upward on the ultimate, everlasting reality of God Himself.

This definitely should have implications for our interpretation of other "vision" passages, especially those that involve storms and clouds. Many times the approaching clouds of judgment are stylized visions of the dust kicked up by a massive army on the march (always being brought by the sovereign hand of God to judge His peoples for their spiritual infidelity). Sometimes the storms described in visions show us the power and wrath of God against sin. Still, we should be cautious about asserting a non-biblical, rigid "literalism" that insists on physically manifested storm clouds while ignoring how the Hebrew-speaking peoples thought and expressed themselves. Some days God was working the deliverance of David from Saul were, no doubt, sunny days. But in the surpassing spiritual reality, He was storming mightily on behalf of His anointed, and moving the events of human history to ultimately reveal salvation in Jesus Christ. He's still doing this: "He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purpose in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the the earth" (Ephesians 1:9,10).

His glory fills the whole earth, even the parts where you will live and move and breathe today. Sometimes He will be a gentle breeze, but sometimes He will billow up and thunder...and all to draw you closer to His Son.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hope Deferred...but Rejoicing in Hope

"They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them" (Acts 16:6-10).

This is during Paul's "second missionary journey." He has been traveling through the Roman Empire "strengthening the churches" (15:41), with the result that "the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily" (16:5). And then block, block, vision.

I don't know about you, but the sequence is not what I have usually experience in my walk of faith. In my experience, it's usually vision, block, block, block, etc.

The Psalms are filled with this great longing for the LORD, and we can relate as the Psalmist sits between a vision and a roadblock:

  • "As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'" (Psalm 42:1-3).

  • "I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched; my eyes fail while I wait for my God" (Psalm 69:3).

  • "My soul languishes for Your salvation; I wait for Your word. My eyes fail with longing for Your word, while I say, 'When will You comfort me?'" (Psalm 119:81,82).

  • "Answer me quickly, O LORD, my spirit fails; do not hide Your face from me, or I will become like those who go down to the pit" (Psalm 143:7).

What do we do? Pray against the devil? It wasn't the devil blocking Paul, though his intentions to go into Asia and Bithynia were wholly Kingdom-oriented. Beware lest we find ourselves trying to cast out the Spirit of Jesus in our spiritual warfare! What do we do?

"Now [Jesus] was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, 'In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, "Give me legal protection from my opponent." For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, "Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out."' And the Lord said, 'Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry out to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?'" (Luke 18:1-8).

We keep praying in faith and we don't lose heart. It's the second part that gets difficult, doesn't it? After all, "hope deferred makes the heart sick" (Proverbs 13:12). Paul, a man who knew difficulty and roadblocks, commands us to always be "rejoicing in hope" (Romans 12:12). How do we do this? This isn't, of course, the only time Paul speaks of "hope" in this letter to the Romans. Let's look at what else he says about hope, about avoiding a sick heart, and learning to rejoice while we wait between the vision and the roadblock.

We rejoice in hope because of the promises of the One in Whom we have hope.

"In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, 'So shall your descendants be.' Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform" (Romans 4:18-21).

Abraham. Hope against hope. As good as dead. Amazing passage for those between the vision and the roadblock, for this is where the great patriarch pitched his tent for DECADES. What kept Abraham from the "sick heart"? In hoping he "he grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured." What was the factor that allowed him to be "rejoicing in hope"? The promise of God.

  • He hoped "according to that which had been spoken."
  • He hoped because of "what God had promised."

The Word of God had been given to Abraham, and so he was able to rejoice in hope, IN SPITE OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES. Everything about the outward reality, the facts of the situation, said that Abraham's hope was impossible. So it is in our lives between the vision and the roadblock. In this valley everything says, "give this up right now, it cannot happen." But God has spoken and the circumstances cannot silence this Word.

To keep hope deferred from becoming a spiritual heart disease, we trust in the Word of God alone, despite all the protestations of outward circumstance. This is the primary means God uses to bringing the one waiting in hope the comfort that sustains the heart: "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4).

The Word cannot be a tree of life to the one hoping unless you read it and are familiar with the God Who gives visions and roadblocks. We should make ourselves familiar with Him not mainly through the testimonies and experiences of others, but through what He has said about Himself in His Word. Read it while you wait. Make it your companion, and learn assurance that allows you to rejoice while hoping.

God the Holy Spirit wrote the Scriptures. They are written to tell us about the God Who is our Satisfaction, Comfort, Love, Joy, and greatest Peace. When we get separated from this Word, hope deferred can make our hearts sick. When we are in His Word, reminding ourselves of Who He is, we can rejoice while waiting on hope. Don't get self-centered in reading Scripture, though. We are meant to get lost in the glory of Christ not by "finding ourselves" (the pop-psychology word of this generation), but finding Him and finding that He satisfies all we could ever need. Make your Scripture reading about getting lost in His glory and greatness. Rejoice in hope. It is a hope that cannot disappoint.

We rejoice in hope because we have the One in Whom we hope.

We don't just have His Word. We have Him.

"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit Who was given to us" (Romans 5:1-5).

I remind you that our God is One God, but He is Three Persons, all equally 100% God and the same in essence. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This thing is a profound mystery confessed by the Church for two millennia. Men anchored to the sod of a fallen world in every generation have tried to redefine this Triune God into something that can be put in a box, but a God Who can be completely comprehended in this world is not much of God, is He? We hold to the God taught by the Scripture, Who is One and Three. No one has seen the Father at any time. The Son came and went. But, to insure that we do not lose heart and grieve as orphans in this world, God the Holy Spirit has come and will never leave His Church. We have the Book He has Authored, and we have Him.

Rejoicing in hope is not something we can do without the work of God the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is a supernatural assurance that hope will be fulfilled and rejoicing in the comforting presence of the Comforter while we wait, worship, and serve during this time between the vision and the roadblock. It is He Who teaches us the Word He has written and causes it to be food to satisfy us while we wait on the banquet to come.

"Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).

We persevere for a high but unseen hope.

We dream BIG because it is not our dream, but the God Who gives light and goodness in His gifts. We dream as big as God Himself.

"For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him Who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it" (Romans 8:20-25).

Big dreams, longing for the dream of God to see "the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth" (Ephesians 1:10)...and in our lives. We long for what we cannot see, but we have been told about it in the promises of God's Word, and have God the Holy Spirit Himself within us to enable us to hold on to this dream too big to be grasped by the human heart unassisted.

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). We have faith that our hope will be fulfilled, and so we persevere, we endure to the end with faith in hope ever-growing through the nurturing and strengthening power of God the Holy Spirit Who dwells in His Church.

Difficult days may come when the groaning in our spirits seems louder than usual, but we endure to the end with faith and hope in the One Who has promised, the One Who is with us, and the One Who has caused us to hope in great and glorious (humanly impossible and even incomprehensible) things.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I Am Bound for the Promised Land

Does the letter to the Hebrews teach we can lose our salvation?

"For this reason we much pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels [the Law, see the post on this subject] proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will be escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:1-3).

"...Christ was faithful as a Son over His house - Whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope until the end" (3:6).

"Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God" (3:12).

"For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" (3:14).

"Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it" (4:1).

"Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience" (4:11).

"For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly ift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame" (6:4-6).

"For if we go on sinning willfully [notice: the only sin mentioned was the "forsaking our own assembly together"] after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?" (10:26-29).

* * * * * * *

So, is the letter to the Hebrews saying we can lose our salvation?

I want you to remember the story of the Exodus, because that's what the letter to the Hebrews asks of us from 3:1-4:11. The children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt through the mighty works of God (the plagues and parting of the Red Sea). Were they "saved" at this point? No. They still had to cross the desert (being supplied with food and water along the way). After making it to the foot of Mt. Sinai and hearing the Word of God, were they "saved"? No. They still had to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, clearing the land in obedience to God's directions, and settle there according to God's Law. They didn't do this, did they? They balked at God's ability to deliver on His promises to give them the Land. So, because of their disbelief, God marched them back into the desert so that the Exodus generation could die there. A whole generation was raised in the desert: "Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness" (Numbers 14:33). They were delivered from slavery, witnessed God's miraculous power, were sustained by God, received God's Word, and laid their eyes on the Promised Land, BUT THEY WERE NOT SAVED BECAUSE OF THEIR UNBELIEF! It was only the generation that believed God and crossed the Jordan that were able to tell future generations of the salvation wrought in the Exodus. The others fell in the desert.

Now return to the letter to the Hebrews. Does it say we can lose our salvation, or - keep in mind the recipients of the letter - is the letter comparing that first Jewish generation of the Church to the generation that came out of Egypt by the delivering hand of God?

"Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12). Can a person with "an evil, unbelieving heart" be a Christian, or "saved"? No, of course not! He is asking them to examine themselves and encourage each other to not lapse into a sinful lifestyle, for that falling "away from the living God" would be a sign that inside you was "an evil, unbelieving heart." In other words, your lifestyle is a witness to the reality in your heart. We often comfort ourselves for loved ones who are living in open rebellion to the Lord by remembering or recounting some time when they made a public profession of faith. The thing is that it is possible to make a public profession of faith and not be truly born again. A person caught up in an emotionally compelling moment may make a public profession but still have "an evil, unbelieving heart." It is the continuance in the Spirit-filled Christian life as part of a Word-saturated Body that is the witness to a true profession, not a filled-out decision card!

Why did the Exodus generation fall in the desert? Was it because they "lost their salvation," or was it because they were never truly filled with saving faith in the first place (despite their witnessing all the amazing works of God)? "So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief" (3:19). They were never saved to begin with, and neither will any person who does not have true belief to go along with their outward behavior.

"For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard" (4:2). Hearing the good news preached is the means by which God saves people (Romans 10:8-15), but hearing without faith does not result in salvation. Isaiah is told to go preach to a people that will not receive his message unto salvation (Isaiah 6:9,10). All four Gospels and the book of Acts quote that verse (Matthew 13:14,15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26,27). But when faith is united with the message heard, true salvation is the result, not some false imitation that inevitably withers away.

Jesus speaks of this truth in His parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9,18-23). What is the seed? The Word of the Kingdom. Some, upon hearing it, show immediately signs they do not understand it. Nothing at all happens when it is sown (preached). Some hear the Word, receive it with joy, but when that same Word begins to cause trouble in their lives, they stumble into oblivion. For some the "worry of the world" and the "deceitfulness of wealth" cause them to abandon that Word which they originally heard. Some, however, hear the Word and it bears incredible fruit in their lives. Let me ask you: who was truly saved?

Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament) doesn't teach "once saved" (like it's some isolated event in the past) "always saved." A singular, isolated event of a "prayer prayed" (show me the "sinner's prayer" or "asking Jesus into your heart" in the Bible) or public decision being made is not the thing that seals you to heaven forever. No, Jesus says things like, "the one who endures to the end, he will be saved" (Matthew 24:13). Sounds a lot like the stuff in the letter to the Hebrews. A person who truly receives the message of the Good News preached and has that message united with true, lasting, growing faith in his/her heart, will endure to the end and will be saved. The one who falls away never had faith to begin with, regardless of a "prayer prayed," or one-time confession. True rebirth, true renewal of life, true salvation causes a change in a person's life. It isn't that they are perfect and never sin again, but sin becomes a battlefield and not a place of luxurious vacation. A person who is saved is changed. A person who is lost is capable of spurts of play-acting, but make their true nature known through their lives.

Sometimes they fall away from being part of the Church. Sadly, sometimes they become the wolves in sheep's clothing or the tares among the wheat within the Church. No matter what they are, the faith/belief is lacking from their heart and therefore they are not saved and were never saved to begin with.

Does the letter to the Hebrews teach that we can lose our salvation? No, but drawing upon the Jewish salvation-history of the Exodus, the letter to the Hebrews says that there are some who make a decent showing of being people of faith, but are not really people of the faith, and when difficulty comes in the life of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, they will fall away. Be disciplined in your life to be an accountable part of the Body of Christ, bearing fruit to His this to assure yourself that your faith is genuine.

"All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end" (Baptist Faith & Message [2000], article V).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Let This Be Our Prayer.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Acts 4:24-30. I know very little about most things, but especially prayer. What I do know is that I see prayers in the Bible that cause God to shake the heavens and the earth. "In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words..." (Romans 8:26). I consider that the Spirit also helps us in prayer through the Word He has Authored. So I pay attention to these prayers of the Scriptures given to us by God the Holy Spirit. And this one in Acts is close to my heart.

It is a prayer "to God with one accord" (4:24). Unity of the Church is the Reality of the True Church. It is how the Father has designed the Church, how the Son reigns over the Church, and how the Holy Spirit builds the Church. The disunity we see and experience is from our bringing of worldly concerns into the Church, the continued fleshly desire to build our kingdom rather than Christ's, ignorance or willful rejection of the truth of the Word, etc. We see this Church praying to God as ONE. The unity comes from the Reality established by God (Ephesians 4:4-6), gifted by the Christ Who takes us captive (4:7-11), and the building of the Church (4:12-16). This Church that prays in Acts 4 "to God with one accord" has embraced the Reality, the gift, and the building. And so they come to corporate prayer as the Church.

It is a prayer that draws from the Bible as its heartbeat. The confession of Acts 4:24 that identifies the One to Whom they pray: "Lord, it is You Who made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them..." This is a scriptural view of God. They come as one Body to a God Who is greater than all things because He made all things. He is not their pet god. He is not their good luck charm or servant of their individual goals and desires. He is Maker of ALL.

Then they move on to the Psalm 2 quote, lifting up the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit and the salvation of God through history (the citation of David the LORD's servant): "Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples devise futile things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ" (Acts 4:25,26//Psalm 2:1,2). This quotation of the Psalms was most natural to the Church. I believe it was part of every corporate prayer time they had together. We read in 2:42 that "they were continually devoting prayer [lit., "the prayers"]." I would suggest to you that these early Jewish Christians devoted themselves to "the prayers," which was the Book of Psalms, the prayer-book of the Bible. Even after the Church expanded past its predominately Jewish nature, the Psalms were still vital to the corporate life of the Church:
  • "When you assemble, each one has a psalm..." (1 Corinthians 14:26).
  • " filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms..." (Ephesians 5:18,19).

Both of these passages highlight the work of God the Holy Spirit in the Church, and both bring the spiritual exercise of corporate prayer of the Psalms (which the Holy Spirit Authored) into play. So, as the Church gathered to pray in Acts 4:24-30, they naturally wove - by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit - the Psalms written by the Spirit into their prayer. It was what they always did, it honored the God in their midst Who had given them Scriptures, and lifted God's own words back to Him in prayer. Do you see the power already building just in this act alone? The Word is the power of God! Make it your prayer, dear Church!

This prayer remembers the mighty deeds of God. Not just in citing Creation and mentioning David, but the mighty deeds in their own lives. All of humanity ("...Herod and Pontius Pilate...the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel") had been gathered together against Christ. It did not matter. Their greatest opposition became the very narrative of the plan of God: " do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur" (4:28). Remember the mighty deeds of God in your prayers! This was the theme of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11). We focus on the tongues and arguing over what this phenomenon was, but the point is that they heard "the mighty deeds of God." Remember these deeds and tell of them from both the Bible and your own lives.

Take note of the circumstance of the prayer. Peter and John have been arrested. Peter has given another amazing sermon (3:12-26) and testimony (4:8-12) in the power of the Triune God:

  • "...they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father Who speaks in you" (Matthew 10:17-20).
  • "...they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name's sake. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute" (Luke 21:12-15).
  • "...they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them. The gospel must first be preached to all the nations. When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is give you in that hour; for it is not you who speak but it is the Holy Spirit" (Mark 13:9-11).

I have said these things before, but it doesn't hurt to remind us all of Who is our power in testimony before the world. They mention the leaders, as Paul commands us to in his teaching on prayer in 1 Timothy 2:1-8. This command is not for the peace and well-being of the land for its own sake or for our comfort. We pray for the leaders because God desires for men to be saved through a knowledge of the truth (2:4), that is, that Jesus is the Mediator between God and men (2:5). We pray for leaders so that those who are appointed as preachers, apostles, and teachers will be able to proclaim the Good News (2:7), which is "our God reigns" (see Isaiah 52:7). The Church is to pray for what Baptist theologian Herschel Hobbs (1907-1995) called "a free Church in a free State."

In this circumstance, they don't pray for their own comfort, do they? Compare that to the content of our own prayers when we pray apart from the Scriptures, when we pray from lives that devote a percentage and not the whole to the Kingdom of God. But a live wholly dedicated to the reign of God, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and Word, crucified to the world...well, the prayer requests are going to be different. They were being actively threatened by the rulers of the land, but didn't pray for themselves! Let me talk briefly about some "ask whatever you want" passages:

  • John 14:13,14...this promise is held between doing the works of Christ and proof of belief (14:12) and obedience to His commands as proof of love (14:15). The Son responds to prayers in His name to bring glory to the Father. This makes "whatever you ask" have a different flavor, doesn't it?
  • John 15:16...this promise is held between absolute obedience to Christ's command to love in a self-sacrificing way as He loves (15:12-14,17) and is preceded by Christ's statement that He has chosen us, appointed us to bear lasting fruit. This makes "whatever you ask" have a different flavor, doesn't it?
  • John 16:23,24,26 concerns knowledge of Jesus, not receiving our personal (often selfish or fleshly) desires!

Isn't this what Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34)? Doesn't James tell us we don't get what we want because of our motives and desires (4:1-6)?

They prayed for boldness in speaking God's Word: "...grant that Your bondservants may speak Your Word with all confidence..." (4:29). This is a common prayer request (Ephesians 6:18-20; Colossians 4:2-4; 2 Thessalonians 3:1,2). Yes, they pray for healing, "and signs and wonders," but these things are requested as support to the bold proclamation of the Word, not for their own physical comfort or desire to witness supernatural power.

The result of this prayer? "...the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the Word of God with boldness" (4:31). God answered the prayer powerfully. The imprisonments and persecutions increased, but the Word was preached boldly. Some died, but the Word was preached boldly. This world increasingly became alien to them, but the Word was preached boldly.

Let this be our prayer.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

How Disunity Can Be of God

"Why do there have to be denominations?"

"But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you" (1 Corinthians 11:16-19).

I've heard two different pleas for unity lately, one in a letter to an editor in a state newsmagazine, and another from a keynote speaker at a national convention. We've all heard lots of pleas for unity, and it's usually a unity that means "accept everything from everyone" or "let's unite under my authority and/or viewpoint." I gotta say: I'm not always interested in unity.

I'm not interested in unity with those who minimize a deep, biblical understanding of Jesus, eternal Son of God and son of man. I'm not interested in anything less than His utter Sovereignty. I'm not interested in unity with those who regard the Bible as merely man-created or outdated or live a pragmatic denial of its truth by their lifestyles and choices. I'm not interested in unity with those who think "conversions" fulfill the Great Commission rather than disciple-making. I'm not interested in unity with those "Christians" who think they can have a vibrant faith apart from the Body of Christ. I'm not interested in unity for the sake of unity unless it is a unity under Christ the Head of the Church with His Word and Spirit being the final and absolute authority.

Christ creates division. He is the Ultimate Catalyst. When He says, "blessed is he who does not take offense at me" (Matthew 11:6), it's because there's a real probably that you will be offended by the real Jesus! It takes a supernatural intervention in your heart for you NOT to be offended at Him. He is the Offense, as is the message of His cross (1 Corinthians 1:23). Are you blessed, or have you tried to tame the Lion of the Tribe of Judah?

"There must be factions among you..." From the solid standing of the Rock of the Word, I will love you, answer your questions, work for your good, etc. But I will not leave this place in which I stand. I will not argue with you, will not hate you, will not slander you, etc. But I will not join you if you stray into a swampland in Babylon. And I will not allow you to poison the flock I have been commanded to shepherd.

Approval comes through God in Christ, revealed by the work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the Church, and His singular instrument of working in the midst of His Church is His Word. That is the approval manifested by division.

There will be unity when people gather before God to be taught by Him, not to re-make Him into a mirror image of our contemporary sensibilities and desire to be the center of the universe (Isaiah 2:2,3). The "swords" and "spears" will be beat into "plowshares" and "pruning hooks" not when humans come together in their own strength and wisdom, but when they are utterly and completely conquered and subdued by the LORD (2:4).

Want unity? Be consumed by the Offense.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Being the Angel-fire Over Morning Coffee

In the last post I mentioned the passage in 2 Thessalonians 1:8,9. It should be, for the disciple of Jesus Christ, one of the most sobering pictures of "Hell" in the Bible. Immediately following that verse, however, in 2:10-12, we see additional thoughts on the reflective glory of God that have pretty powerful and worship-inspiring implications for our daily lives.
In the same day the Lord Jesus comes in judgment to cast the disobedient to the Good News away from "the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power," He will also "be glorified in His saints" and "be marveled at among all who have believed." The glory of the Lord Jesus Christ will not be something outside of us, something to be an object of observation, but fully manifested or revealed in believers (those who have been wholly set apart for that purpose).
But, so we don't lapse into a false belief that Christ's glory-in-us is only future, Paul tells the "church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:1) that he continually prays for them: "...that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power..." I do hope God fulfills the desires to do His good work in power and in faith (John 3:21; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:12,13; Hebrews 13:20,21). But why? What would the result of this be? " that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ." Just incredible. Even now, when I become a vessel for His powerful work through me by faith, He can be - NOW - glorified in me and I in Him.
Lord, give your children a passion to be wholly consumed with Your good works (a working of His grace in our lives), that Jesus will be glorified TODAY in them!

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Few Words on the Mesa

I was at Gila Mesa Cemetary yesterday speaking at a service for a community member I didn't know. What do you say about a man who'd never been to church, and about whom the family could tell me almost nothing? Well, maybe something like this...

We are standing here today under a perfect blue sky with a glorious view of the Mogollon Mountains. You guys have put on display here things enjoyed by the departed in his life: a cowboy hat, bolo, and harmonica. Yesterday in his house I saw the cover to sheet music framed in his house: "Bury Me on the Prairie." In a corner was a sketch of John Wayne. In his life as a truck driver (we were going to enjoy Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" on a CD player in a moment) the departed enjoyed seeing the open country, listening to "real country music" (old school country) on his truck radio. Remember him when you're on the open road and hear those old songs.

But let me encourage you in another way. Two years ago I was leaving a cemetary after a funeral, and I heard two family members speaking. One said to the other, "funerals sure do make you re-evaluate you priorities." Friends, that's a good thing. You see, the Bible tells us, "it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). We will each stand before our Creator one day, and that day is not the day to begin thinking about Him.

Think about all the things the departed enjoyed in life, from music to Creation. From where - or Whom - did these things originate? God the Creator made everything around us, and is the Source of all enjoyment we have in this life.

"Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights..." (James 1:17).

Everything we enjoy in life is a tiny mirror of the Source of all Goodness, Love, and Joy, the One Who made all things and alone deserves praise for these things. He doesn't just give us these things so we can enjoy them for themselves. No, all of these things that surround us and warm our hearts and give us reason to smile are all reflections of Himself.

"...since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made..." (Romans 1:20).

So you see, everything that the departed enjoyed in his life, all the things that you enjoy in your lives, all of these things are but reflections of the Creator-God Who is the Fullness and Source of these things. But we each have this sinful nature that makes us think all these things are about us, and we all spend our lives trying to accumulate as many of these tiny mirrors of God's glory for ourselves, for our own pleasures...because we think they exist for us. They do not. All these mirrors of God's glory exist to give us reason to think of Him, to love Him, to honor Him and give Him thanks.

We have a problem. We owe an eternal debt to God for stealing His glory and appropriating it for ourselves. God, in His love, sent His Son, Who "is the radiance of His glory" (Hebrews 1:3), to pay the debt that we could never repay. This is Good News. This Good News is called "the glorious Gospel of the blessed God" (1 Timothy 1:11). "Blessed" means "happy." He is the Source of happiness, and He has given us a Good News that is the gateway for us to enjoy Him directly, fully, and forever in His Son Jesus Christ. This Good News is also called "the Gospel of the glory of Christ, Who is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4). The Bible says, "God, Who said, 'Light shall shine out of darkness,' is the One Who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). Christ is the key to see the true Light beyond the little mirrors in our lives. We still enjoy these reflections, but we enjoy them more because we see the Origin of the Light in God through Christ.

For those that refuse to honor the God of Happiness in His Creation through Christ, there is a day when the debt of honor, thanks, and obedience comes due, a day when "the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to know who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power..." (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). Did you hear that? "Away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power." For those who refuse to obey the Good News of Jesus Christ, giving honor, love, and obedience to God through the Son, the Source of the Light of Happiness, Love, and Enjoyment will go dark - they will be cut off from the Source. This means all the little mirrors will go dark, as well. The enjoyments of this life will be gone, along with the memories of enjoyment. The amazement at holding a new baby, the peace of the open sky, the satisfaction of a good meal, the enjoyment of music, the spark of electricity at holding the hand of a sweetheart, the happiness of a good laugh...all of these things, mirrors of the Goodness of God, will go dark, along with the memory of them. This is the penalty for failing to give God honor, love, and obedience for these things that we thought existed for our pleasure solely. For robbing the God of all Glory of the praise and enjoyment He eternally deserves, there will be a sentence of eternal Lack and Hungering that will never be fulfilled.

For those who obedient to the message of the Good News of the Happy God, though, things are different and will be different. For He will also come in that day "to be glorified in His saints...and to be marveled at among all who have believed" (2 Thessalonians 1:9). What we have enjoyed through the little mirrors in our lives will be enjoyed directly from the all-sufficient, all-satisfying Source of all Happiness. Further, in this life we gain a deeper and more profound enjoyment, peace, and satisfaction, for we now enjoy both the reflections of glory and the Source of their Light.

"...everything created by God is good, nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude, for it is sanctified by means of the Word of God and prayer" (1 Timothy 4:4,5).

So, friends, as we are here this beautiful Spring morning remembering the departed and the things he enjoyed in life, let me urge you to use this moment to re-evaluate your priorities and turn your hearts, minds, and lives to the Source of all things we enjoy, giving Him the honor, love, and obedience He deserves through His Son Jesus Christ.

Anyway, maybe you say something like that to a small group of strangers on a mesa in the high desert.
"On the road again, just can't wait to get on the road again..."
* * * * * * *
I guess it's a little redundant, but...
...we cannot, of ourselves, do this: " eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Therefore, this is true of us: "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." (Romans 3:23). Our only hope, therefore, is the glorious Good News of the Happy God.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Skeptical of the Scapegoat's Partner

"Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and sent it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat into the wilderness" (Leviticus 16:21,22).

The man who leads the scapegoat into the wilderness comes back. He doesn't stay with the goat. "The one who released the goat as the scapegoat shall wash his clothes and bathe his body with water; then afterward he shall come into the camp" (16:26). But some seem to want to chaperon the scapegoat. I am skeptical of these, having been one for so long.

This was a living death. Being cut off from the congregation of the people of God was a picture of being consigned to a living death in the wilderness, for the presence of God, the atonement for sin, the Word of God, and the people of His covenant were all in the camp. Leaving this for the wilderness was a picture of Hell we find much later: "These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

Some who claim the title "Christian" shun the camp of the Lord, the congregation of the people of God. They shun the promised Presence of the "two or three gathered" in His name. They shun the teaching and discipline of the Word. They shun the Table remembering the atonement that means life and identity. They play the part of the scapegoat.

"Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He Who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:19-25).

What's grievous is that immediately after this comes this warning: "For if we go one sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries" (10:26,27). The writer mentions "sinning willfully." What is the only sin that has been mentioned in the preceding text? "Forsaking our own assembly together."

Let the scapegoat go and come back to camp, beloved.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

We Were Like Those Who Dream

I sat yesterday evening with a beloved sister in Christ who is on her way Home. She would not awaken at first to greet me with her customary "oh wow" (who doesn't like to be welcomed with such exciting words?). So I sat by her, and, as we were forgotten in the bustle of the business of the household, I read the Psalms to her. Close to her ear, in a low voice (not a whisper), I read to her the inspired Book of Prayer and Praise at the heart of the Word of God. At first there was no response, but the longer I read, I began to have the feeling she was reading with me. A slow, slight nod of the head at certain points, a quiet moan when the Psalm was completed. I started losing myself in the favorite place to be.

You know that the Bible is authored by God the Holy Spirit. Normally when you and I read a book, the author is some name attached to a photo on the back of the dust sleeve. We know the author had something to do with the words on the page, but there is a disconnect because we don't know the author very well. The Bible, though, is different. The Author dwells within the children of God in Christ. For those that hunger for that fellowship with Him in His living Word, He works a joyous closeness and exultant communion. He is good, and His covenant love endures to where the long road meets the horizon and beyond.

This is where I was, losing myself in the Word in a time of being held with this fellow believer in the grip of the Holy Spirit. It is not a technique or a human-centered meditation; it is a gifting grace of God Himself that allows us to become small before the only One worthy of being considered ALL. Forget this garbage of "finding yourself," becoming "centered," or "self-esteem." Only a fool stares in the mirror during a Southwest sunset. Only a sorely benighted soul lifts his voice to be heard over the boom of the breakers on a New England shoreline, or thinks about his own greatness standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon or under the parade of the heavens. The gracious gift of God is to lose oneself in something infinitely greater, more glorious, and loving beyond degree. "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). His Spirit, God the Holy Spirit, Who dwells within believers, makes them one in Christ's Church, and conforms each to the image of God's Beloved Son. His truth (not the "everyone must find his own truth" bilge vomited forth as wisdom in this perverse age), which is His Word (John 17:17). The Holy Spirit and Bible cannot be separated or experienced apart from one another, for in the economy of God they are bound in an undivided unity (1 John 5:6). When we separate them or seek to experience them apart from one another, we quickly enter the deadly zone of error. They are the means by which we truly are brought into the presence of the Creator to worship Him as creation must.

So I sat there with this dear sister and God the Holy Spirit, being woven into His glorious and timeless truth as we worshiped in the Word. Words became emboldened with fire and great weight in places I'd never noticed before. "Forever" gains a special heaviness and light when in a gathering with a saint not far from touching it.

Then we came to Psalm 126. I can't say I've ever paid a lot of attention to this Psalm before, but as I read just the first line my voice caught in my throat.

"When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream." Chills went up my spine and my heart lept at these words. I don't even know if I can explain why. Paul speaks of a knowing beyond knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). This doesn't mean we ignore disciplined study, intelligent meditation, or eschew sound biblical teaching. These are the doorway to the knowledge beyond knowledge, which we can only touch in part in this world, in these frail mortal bodies. A moment comes, when the mind is glorified with the body in eternity, and we find out that we had only known a faint shadow of the pebbles at the foot of Everest when it came to knowledge of God. These small truths are powerfully inspired and infallible here, but the MORE of eternity will fill us with an ever-growing fullness of joy that will never cease for all the days of "forever." I can't adequately teach Psalm 126, but here are a few thoughts that are those shadowy pebbles. We have (with the exception of my dear sister in Christ) a long way to go before we begin the tireless and invigorating climb up the celestial Everest...ZION.

Paul says of heaven that our citizenship is there (Philippians 3:20). So, what are we here? The Bible has numerous testimonies to the fact that we are not home yet and are but pilgrims and sojourners here. Let me tap into our current theme of the majestic and transcendant Word of God and quote a single verse to illustrate this truth: "Your statutes are my songs in the house of my pilgrimage" (Psalm 119:54). I love that verse. Psalm 126:1 speaks of bringing back captives to Zion, to Home (see my thoughts on our captivity here). Being brought back to Zion, being brought Home to God Himself by God Himself, "we were like those who dream."

I immediate thought of a very young child laughing in her sleep. Resting, without fear or concern, relatively pure in thought...laughing. As we watch her laughing so peacefully and joyfully, we cannot help but smile or laugh ourselves. We don't know the secret joke and carry the baggage and responsibility of adulthood, but for a moment we are drawn into that joy. "We were like those who dream." The best of dreams suddenly becoming unending reality with a dreaming laughter suddenly filling our hearts with such joy. We're Home, and Home is ZION. It is His Home, and He has brought us here out of our wandering captivity.

"Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, 'The LORD has done great things for them.' The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad." There's no need for me to go on in exposition, except to say that true and lasting joy starts in the truth of the Word of God that lifts us up to a worthiness that is not our own and a reality in which we are not the center of gravity. That is our purpose, and the reason for which Christ died for our sins: "...Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God..." (1 Peter 3:18). Not to a mystical, self-actualized exalting of ourselves (our most natural and depraved be god). True joy comes from Him and entering into relationship with Him through the salvation available only in Christ. And, in His Word through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (in the context of the gathering of the saints in His Church), we begin to be trained for that ultimate reality. And, no matter the persecution, tribulation, or trial around us, we begin in slow spiritual maturity to "greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8), even though we don't see Him yet and are not setting foot in Zion.

What now? I'm content to wait. I am part of His awesome Church, which is the "fulness of Him Who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23). That's pretty glorious and all-encompassing. I will go back to Psalm 126 several times in the next days, as I did yesterday evening. I have, once more, caught a vision of my purpose - training the saints to walk together in the Word, guided by the Author. And though we may not get to Zion at the same time (my dear sister may beat me there), we will never cease to be one in Christ, and the captives will be brought to Zion in ceaseless joy and laughter, "like those who dream."

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Eldest Brother is Waiting at the Table

I am, as I often do, meditating on the Lord’s Supper. In the midst of the chaos of life, the churning of multiple oceans somehow touching each other in competition over the allotment of time, investment of feeling, and burden of the midst of this the simplicity of the Table gives me direction and peace. It is not ritual, tradition, liturgy, or denomination. It is Gospel. At the Table we confess without words, “I am determined to know nothing among you except Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1). All stormy seas must calm and become subordinate before this indestructible and unshakeable Truth.

Today I am thinking of the Resurrection in the proclamation of the Table, and the promise of Presence that echoes the last words of Matthew’s Gospel: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:20).

Let’s look at Jesus’ words after His proclamation of the cup and His blood in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). They promise a post-Resurrection communion between Christ and His Church at the Table.

In the Gospel of Matthew

“And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom’” (Matthew 26:27-29).

We know the first part of this. We hear it every time we gather at the Table. Paul quotes it (1 Corinthians 11:25) and it has become more liturgy than re-enactment or remembrance. It’s the promise after the giving of the cup that has long held my attention and contemplation. Jesus promises a day when He drinks the cup (representing His sin-forgiving, relationship-establishing blood) new with us in His Father’s Kingdom. When is this to happen? If we can identify Matthew’s theology of the Father’s Kingdom and its realization in our lives, we can find out when Christ will drink the cup again with us.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father Who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS’” (Matthew 7:21-23). These that are allowed to enter the Kingdom are also those who enter the “narrow” gate and walk the “narrow” path (7:14), a reality for the minority. These that are allowed to enter the Kingdom are those who produce good fruit (7:16,20). These that are allowed to enter the Kingdom build their lives on Christ’s words (7:24). Are these qualities applied only at the Judgment, or are they qualities that have an importance in identifying whether or not we are a true part of Christ’s Church now? I would suggest to you that those that do the will of the Father, produce good fruit, walk a narrow path, and build their lives on Christ’s words are those who are true members of Christ’s Church today, and therefore are proclaimers and citizens of the Father’s Kingdom today (I reject a separation of the Church and Kingdom, since the “King of kings” is the Lord, Savior, and Bridegroom of the Church). So those in the Kingdom of Heaven are those who are part of the Church today. Now. Not just at the Judgment or in the sweet by and by.

“And He said, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear’” (Matthew 13:37-43). Let’s dabble for a moment in the quagmire of eschatology (over which I plan on walking without my rat-claws ever touching the mud). This parable’s resolution, like all of Jesus’ similar teaching, points to the “end of the age,” when Herod’s Temple was destroyed by the wrath of God (using the Romans) in A.D. 70 in judgment for Second Temple Judaism’s rejection of the Messiah and persecution of the Church. The Church becomes the sole voice and expression of the Kingdom of the Father.

“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you’” (Matthew 21:28-31). So it is not confession primarily, but obedience after repentance (“he regretted it and went”) that are elements of participation in the Kingdom of God (one of the four times Matthew uses the term “Kingdom of God” instead of “Kingdom of heaven”).

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-40). The King is Jesus, Son of God. The Kingdom has been prepared for the blessed of the King’s Father from the beginning. Those on the King’s right are those that showed mercy NOT INDISCRIMINATELY TO THE NEEDY OF THE WORLD, but to the King’s brothers, even the least of them. Are these not those adopted into the King’s family through the King’s saving work on the cross, that is, the Church (Romans 8:15,16; Galatians 4:5-7; Ephesians 1:5)? Are not those that serve the Church as if it were the King Himself those that are part of the Church?

Let me mention Jesus’ great post-Resurrection statement: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is King now. His authority is complete now, and it is over all things. And His presence is exclusively with His people (28:20).

This inordinate longing for heaven so present in the sentimentality and singing of the Church lessens the absolute glory of the Church today, now. The totally sovereign King is present with us NOW. So when Jesus promises on the eve of His death on the cross (the subject of our mutual proclamation at the Table) to drink again with us in His Father’s Kingdom, and when the post-resurrection Jesus announces His complete authority over all and unending presence with His Church, I propose to you that He drinks of the cup with us at the Table when we drink it in proclamation of His work on the cross.

In the Gospel of Mark

“And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, ‘This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’” (Mark 14:23-25).

Mark records “Kingdom of God,” but the rest of the statement is basically the same. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry the content of His message was about the Kingdom: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (1:15). It is only the most self-centered hermeneutic, demanding that all Scripture is about us and about right now, that makes “fulfilled” time and the phrase “at hand” to mean a delay of millennia. The rule of God was made manifest in the world by the teaching of Jesus and His work on the cross (and subsequent resurrection).

“…the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, ‘Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am; and you shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN’” (Mark 14:61,62). Again the desert rat hovers over the chaos of eschatology. “Right hand of power” is the language of authority over all. “Coming with the clouds of heaven” is language utilized throughout the Bible for God’s coming to judge His enemies. Jesus alludes to the A.D. 70 destruction of Herod’s Temple and its religious system.

Jesus, Lord over the Church, is Preacher of the Kingdom and Destroyer of its enemies. He is also present with His Church, and has promised to drink the cup new with us in God’s Kingdom. He proclaimed the imminence of this Kingdom at the start of His earthly ministry, and announced Kingdom judgment just before His crucifixion. Here we are, after resurrection and after Kingdom judgment, and Christ is present with us at the drinking of the cup not just in remembrance, but in participation.

In the Gospel of Luke

“And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, ‘Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.’ And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:15-20).

Jesus promises to the disciples that He will eat the Passover again when it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. Is there any doubt that Jesus’ death on the cross was the fulfillment of the Passover?

“Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7,8). The Passover fulfilled, so Christ’s promise to eat it again is present with His people.

The Kingdom of heaven is said to belong to the poor now, not at some future date (Luke 6:20).

The Kingdom of heaven is said to have come near to those hearing the preaching of the apostles (10:9,11).

“…if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (11:20). Well, did He cast out demons by the finger of God?

“And someone said to Him, ‘Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?’ And He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, “Lord, open up to us!'” then He will answer and say to you, “I do not know where you are from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets”; and He will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.” In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God’” (Luke 13:23-29). At the Table will be those from all over the world, eating at the Table in the Kingdom. Surely these from the four corners of the world are the Church, made up of all tribes, tongues, and nations. Those who rejected Messiah, who thought their salvation was based solely on their racial heritage, will not be present at the Table.

“The Kingdom of God is in your midst” (17:21). This was during the earthly ministry of Jesus. Does His removal after the resurrection to the right hand of the Father mean that the Kingdom has now retreated from our midst? Do we really want to say this? He also promises us His unending presence. With Jesus' presence is the presence of the Kingdom of God among His Church alone.

When the children of God in Christ gather at the Lord’s Supper Table, Jesus Himself is present with the Church, partaking of the meal to which He gave meaning, the meal that speaks of Him. Why then, dearest saints, do we neglect the Table? We are a family that rarely gathers at the Father’s Table with our elder Brother! Time to make the gathering at the Table a weekly part of the gathering of the saints. Let’s grow up out of our sad reasons for neglecting the Table (logistics, our intolerance of the simple, fear of constant practice leading to lessening of meaning…which is code for “our hearts are hard,” and the fullness of our services with other things not explicitly given by our Lord). Embrace the Table, pray our vision is given a singular focus (1 Corinthians 2:1), and ask the Spirit to awaken our hard hearts to the proclamation of the Table.

Our Savior, Lord, and Brother is waiting for us, to drink the cup again in His glorious Kingdom (the Church)!

Addendum, Postscript, and/or Feedback Loop (Overkill and possible Distraction, no matter what it is!)

I never know when to stop, and have a twisted delight in adding material that disrupts rhythm (or forces the subject through an overweight addendum to start tumbling toward a disintegration of the piece’s original focus). I am a teacher at heart, though (even if not in gifting, reception, or effectiveness), and am willing to sacrifice art for one more moment of scriptural exposition…and I suspect that the artist’s willingness to strain art for the sake of the Larger is, in itself, art! Anyway…two items from the Revelation of Jesus Christ in tangent to our contemplation.

First is the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9). We have in our minds, through creative preaching and emotional singing (and perhaps too much perusing of bridal magazines), a massive Table attended and headed by God Himself. Endless, evermore delicious fare that will never add to the celestial waistline and will never become mundane is served before us, and at that table no one will ever make the observation, “their god is their appetite” (Philippians 3:19). Even better, the loved ones we miss so much will be there, too, for that Thanksgiving Dinner loaded with an infinite nostalgia. One big smorgasbord, forever and ever, Amen. Well, perhaps, but that’s not the point of the “marriage supper of the Lamb” in Revelation 19. Not to be a downer on your hopes for the best wedding reception ever (in the fashion of what we would do here on earth if we had unlimited resources), but let Scripture interpret Scripture, not your memories of holiday family get-togethers or visions of American wedding excesses. “The infallible rule for the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, I.9). Read all of Revelation 19. Given the context of the chapter and the entire movement of the Revelation as a whole, I suspect rather strongly that the “marriage supper” is synonymous with the feasting of the aviary on the corpses of God’s enemies in 19:17-21. God’s ways and thoughts are definitely higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8,9), and we have not resisted sin to the point of the shedding of blood (Hebrews 12:4), so maybe we should set aside the imposing of our ideal wedding party on Scripture. The marriage supper is the feasting of scavengers on the carrion that was the enemies of God and His Church. Don’t worry. I’m sure the food in heaven will still be good, but that’s not what Revelation 19 is about.

Second, finally, and in return to our original subject, let’s go backwards from Revelation 19 to chapter 3. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (3:20). Given Jesus’ promise in the Synoptic Gospels to partake again of the fruit of the vine in the Kingdom of God, and my proposition that this is a post-Resurrection communion with His Church, let’s read the glorified Christ’s promise to the Laodicean Church in this context.

He’s here, Beloved, and desires communion with His Bride at the Table. Open to Him, gather at His Table, and let’s dine. We have woefully underestimated the awesome reality of the gathering of the redeemed with their Redeemer!