Wednesday, December 17, 2014


ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ. The Acts of the Apostles.

Graduate work in seminary is now over twelve years behind me, but I still cringe when I think about those moments in a theology, Bible, or history course when someone, usually during a break, would comment, “I wish we just had to learn about practical ministry.” My visceral reaction (that I politely kept choked back) stuck with me far longer than it should. I remember a professor in a missiology class saying that the missionaries went out to do the work of reaching the lost, and that it was the “MDiv student’s job” to make it appear biblical. It’s only recently (in the last year or so) that I can open a popular book on ministry. There are good ones out there, I know, but the taint of those who only wanted the practical side of our training stuck to these “hands on” sort of books in my sinful mind.

Last week I opened a Greek New Testament to look something up. As I was flipping through the pages, I saw the title at the top of the pages to the book of Acts. ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ. Πραξεις, the first word in that title, is cognate with our English word “praxis.” Part of the same word-family as “practical.” The fifth book in the New Testament, in a sense, is a “practical” book on how to do ministry. I was both chastened for sticking my nose in the air concerning the idea of “practical ministry,” but also curious. According to the Holy Spirit, Who worked through those apostles in the first generation of the new covenant Church, what did “practical ministry” look like?

They prayed (1:14).
They added a leader for “ministry and apostleship” (1:15-26).
They met together (2:1).
They proclaimed “the wonderful works of God” to every ethnicity and language (2:4-40), preaching a sermon about God’s saving work in Christ from numerous Old Testament texts, ending with a command to “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”
They baptized “those who gladly received his word” (2:41).
I’ve always loved these next verses, which show the daily,“practical” work of the Holy Spirit in their midst: “...they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people” (2:42-47).
They went to where the people were, healed a man, and preached (3:1-26).
They witnessed to the authorities who had arrested them (4:5-22).
They prayed for boldness to preach even more (4:24-31).
They sold possessions to meet the needs of the poorer members of the Church (4:32-36).
They gathered where people were and healed them (5:12-16).
They were arrested, freed, and told (by “the Lord”) to go preach again (5:17-21).
They were arrested again, and get to preach another message (albeit shorter) to the authorities – not on civil rights, or injustice, but the Gospel (5:29-31).
They were released, “and daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42).
They were meeting the needs of the widows in the congregation (6:1).
They were appointing men “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” to the office of servant (6:2-6). These office-bearing servants were so “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” that two of them, Stephen (6:8-7:) and Philip (8:4-40), become unmatched preachers (Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr) and missionaries.
In addition to the office of servant (to meet the needs of the widows in the congregation and set the world afire with Gospel preaching as the Spirit directs), the original leadership continued to devote themselves “continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:4-7:60).
They grieved over their dead (8:2). In case that sounds too tame, they “made great lamentation over him.” Corporate grief is a psychologically and spiritually invaluable gift of God, lost in our culture (read the hymn-book of the Bible, the Psalter, sometime to see the emotions on display in their congregational singing).
They baptized former enemies (9:18).
They preached (9:20).
They made peace for the building of the fellowship and ministry (9:26-28). Beloved, we need more peacemakers like Barnabas! “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
They healed (9:32-34).
They restored the dead to life (9:35-43).
They prayed (10:9).
They traveled to places for the purpose of preaching and baptizing (10:34-48). Yes, there were probably still lots of households in Jerusalem that needed the Gospel. But God sent Peter on a short-term mission trip to this particular house.
They met to sort out disagreement and confusion about the mission work (11:1-18). They ended up glorifying God for reaching a people very different from themselves.
They preached (11:19-21).
They encouraged preachers (11:22-25).
They assembled the Church and taught them (11:26). For a year.
They collected an offering to meet the needs of the Church suffering from what we would call a “natural disaster” (i.e., an act of God, 11:27-30).
They were killed (12:2) and imprisoned (12:3) by the civil leadership.
They prayed (12:12).
The leadership of a local congregation “ministered to the Lord and fasted” (13:1-3).
They sent out missionaries after having “fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them” (13:3).
They traveled and preached (13:5).
They traveled and preached some more – about Jesus from Old Testament texts (13:13-41). Then they did it some more (13:44-49).
And some more (14:1-3).
And some more (14:6,7).
They healed (14:8-10).
They preached (14:14-17).
They preached the Gospel not just in marketplaces or the synagogues, but in local congregations, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.’ So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in Whom they had believed” (14:22,23).
They reported their mission work to the Church that had commissioned them (14:27,28). Paul and associates were accountable to a local congregation. What had the local congregations been doing while Acts reported on Paul’s mission trip? The practices outlined in 2:42-47.
They met to resolve doctrinal conflict (15:1-31).
They traveled and preached (15:32-35).
They traveled and encouraged the Church (15:36-40).
They kept on traveling and encouraging the Church (16:1-5).
They traveled and preached (16:10).
They preached and baptized (16:13-15).
They cast out a demon (16:16-19).
They “were praying and singing hymns to God” to a new audience – fellow prisoners in the Philippi jail (16:25).
They preached and baptized (16:31-34).
They encouraged fellow believers (16:40).
They traveled and preached Christ from the Old Testament (17:1-4).
They did it again (17:10-12).
They traveled and preached about God the Creator, judgment Day and the need to repent, salvation in Christ the Judge alone, all while quoting pagan poets (17:16-34).
They traveled and preached (18:1-5).
They baptized (18:8).
They taught “the Word of God” for eighteen months (18:11).
They traveled and preached (18:19).
They traveled and took time to encourage congregations (18:23).
They traveled and preached Christ from the Old Testament (18:24-28).
They baptized (19:5).
They preached for two years (19:8-10).
They healed and cast out demons (19:11,12).
They sent out men to preach whom they had personally discipled and mentored (19:22).
They traveled and encouraged believers “with many words” (20:1,2).
They gathered to break bread and hear preaching throughout the night on the first day of the week (20:7).
They taught and prayed for the leadership of local congregations (20:17-36).
They prayed (21:5).
They reported on mission work (21:17-25).
They were arrested and preached to hostile mobs (21:37-22:21).
They remained arrested and preached to hostile groups of leaders (22:30-23:1,6).
They defended themselves before a regional governor – and preached the Gospel (24:10-21).
They did it again (24:24,25). It’s noteworthy that, while preaching “the faith in Christ,” some of Paul’s topics included “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come.” Does your Gospel preaching and/or witnessing include these topics?
Still in custody, they continued to witness to Christ while on trial (26:1-23).
While shipwrecked, they healed (28:8,9).
They enjoyed fellowship for a week with believers (28:14,15).
They preached (28:17-29).
While under house arrest, they taught Christ for two years (27:30,31).

This is the Bible’s book on “practical ministry.” While modern books on “practical ministry” can be helpful, they can also pull us in dozens of different directions from the basics outlined in Acts. Let’s make sure we’re reading and following the model of the first “practical ministry” book before reading the advice of well-intentioned and successful leaders of today. Foundations matter.

I’ve purposed to read one of these modern “practical ministry” sort of books once a quarter these days (bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, you might say). If they’re good, I pass them on to church members or leaders in other congregations. What qualifies as “good”? They guide back to the original “practical ministry” book and increase faithfulness to the Holy Spirit’s model.

Let’s not outgrow Acts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Circumstantial Obedience?

The family-clan leaves Jerusalem to head home after the Passover, and twelve year-old Jesus stays behind. Mary and Joseph eventually find Him in the Temple, amazing the teachers with His understanding. “When they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.’ And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Luke 2:48-51).

God: His Father.
Jesus’ purpose: His Father’s business.
Where He deserves to be: the center the world to the people of the old covenant (Jerusalem), not some backwater nowhere (Nazareth).
Mary (mom) and Joseph (legal father...note how Jesus redirects Mary, reminder her of Who His Father is) didn’t understand Him.

Despite these facts, He completely submits to them in obedience to the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12//Deuteronomy 5:16; Ephesians 6:1-3).

Christian, obedience is not contingent on circumstances favorable to that obedience. Those who love Him keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; 7:9; 11:1; 30:16; Joshua 22:5; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4; John 14:15; 15:10; 1 John 5:3), even when it’s difficult, even when we aren’t where we want to be, even when nobody understands, even when we have a million reasons our friends all support about why we shouldn’t obey this or that particular command.

One of the most grace-filled words in the New Testament is the conjunction “but”:
  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16,17).
  • “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:1-10).
  • “For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.’ And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.’) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:18-24).

On our lips, sadly, it is a word that usually introduces disobedience. “I know what the Bible says, but...”

God the Holy Spirit will be present with us as we purpose to obey the commandments of God:
  • “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God Who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12,13).
  • “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied” (1 Peter 1:1,2).

God the Holy Spirit is present with us through the teaching, preaching, reading, singing, praying, and doing of His Word:
  • Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness(Romans 6:16-18).
  • Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever...this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:22,23,25b).

I’m utterly unsurprised when Bible study groups/Sunday School classes who are more concerned with gossipy cliques or social amusements produce a fruit of disobedience to the Word. I’m profoundly underwhelmed when believers who maybe gather with the saints for a few hours a month follow their heart instead of the Lord of their lips. I can hardly raise an eyebrow to those whose counsel in life-challenges and difficulties are all as practical and worldly-minded as they are, producing a community garden of flesh. It’s not shocking. If you’re not gathering in the Word, you’re going to have a life marked by disobedience to that Word.

We are not called to the popular or easy or comfortable. The path of obedience is not one to a guaranteed earthly/fleshly/temporal blessing or ease. Christ, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him Who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (Hebrews 5:7-9). Notice that the root of our obedience-producing faith is a Savior Who, as fully human, “learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” No conjunctions-unto-disobedience for Him. Or us.

Gather together in the Word, and may the Spirit produce in you a passion for holy obedience unto Christ-imitating and Father-glorifying righteousness.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gathering for Freedom

Our congregation’s worship leader sent me an e-mail last week describing several events going on this Lord’s Day. A community announcement in our little Southwest town invited people to “Happy Heathen Sunday,” a get-together by the “Atheist Meet-Up” group. Among other things, as this group gathers at a downtown coffee shop, they’ll “enjoy being terrible people who get to do what they like on Sunday morning.”

Sounds like freedom, doesn’t it? In opposition to the (maybe) 5% of the people in this city who will attend church this morning, these radical non-conformists will join the other 95% in following the dictates of their own desires. They’re only unique in that they’re being open and public about it. Are they really free, though?

Romans 6. Christian baptism denies their enjoyment is a reality. They may be doing “what they like,” but it’s the only thing they can do; not quite the libertine party they advertise it to be.

“ many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin” (Romans 6:3-7, N.K.J.V.).

“Slaves of sin,” needing to be “freed from sin.”

“ not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts” (6:12). Prior to baptism “into Christ Jesus,” sin reigned in the mortal body, and there was no option but to “obey it in its lusts.”

“ not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin” (6:13). Prior to baptism “into Christ Jesus,” there was no option but to “present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin.”

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness...just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness...what fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:16-19,21-23). Prior to baptism “into Christ Jesus,” nobody is free “to do what they like.” Well, let me clarify that. They are totally free “to do what they like,” as long as it’s “uncleanness,” “lawlessness,” and “sin.” We cannot pursue God’s “cleanness” apart from His Word (John 15:3) and baptism (Hebrews 10:22). Apart from Christ, we are not only breakers of God’s Law, but we hate God’s Law. Apart from Christ, we are “slaves to sin.” We can be nothing else.

On the Lord’s Day, grow in your knowledge of “that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.” Gather together with those who are “slaves of righteousness for holiness,” who are “slaves of God” bearing “fruit to holiness.” Gather with those “baptized into Christ Jesus.”

“Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone [see Exodus 13:3,14; 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6; 6:12; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5,10; Judges 6:8; Micah 6:4]. How can You say, “You will be made free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:31-36).

How does the Son make us “free”? By the abiding “in [Christ’s] word” as His “disciples indeed.” Gather together in the Word.

One of the first Christian books I read was Chuck Colson’s The Body (Word Publishing, 1992). It took a while for the message of the book to sink in, but as I’ve read it repeatedly over the last few decades, I’ve come to love it more and more. I wish I would’ve grabbed on to its theme sooner. There’s a passage in the book where a former Soviet citizen describes the efforts to erase God and her reaction to these efforts (pg. 76):

Today Irina was wondering, as she often had, why the teacher even bothered with the truckloads of words she was dumping from the front of the room. “God doesn’t exist,” the instructor said again. “Only silly old women believe in Him.”

Can’t they tell they are giving themselves away? thought Irina. Adults tell you there are no gremlins or ghosts. They tell you once or twice, that’s it. But with God, they tell you over and over again. So He must exist – and He must be very powerful for them to fear Him so greatly.

The Psalmist points this out, as well: “All his thoughts are, ‘there is no God’” (10:4, N.A.S.B.). This confession must be so constantly repeated because its assertion is counter to the way any part of the creation behaves. “...since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20, N.K.J.V.). “The things that are made” include the human brain, which is why Paul also says in the following verse that even idolaters and atheists “knew God.” They are “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them” (1:18,19). The work of the atheist is constant and never done, because it is a continual denial of the reality hard-wired into their very being. Must be exhausting. Especially when you must live up to the advertisement and “enjoy” your gathering under this banner.

I’m glad they made the announcement, and I absolutely support their freedom to gather and say whatever they want to say. I would never take it away from them or support anyone who desired to do so. In fact, they are being exceedingly helpful to the Gospel cause. They are conformists to the uttermost, since the vast majority of the population will be doing exactly what they are doing, be they confessing Christians or not. Most will spend this Sunday morning doing whatever they feel like doing, whatever they perceive will bring them the most enjoyment. The “happy” atheists are just being open and honest about it, reminding all who do obey the Scriptures’ command to gather for Christ’s glory on this third Sunday of Advent that our little town is a vital mission field. The self-described “heathen” are a God-given catalyst to prompt us to prayer and even greater efforts at evangelistic outreach to our neighbors, friends, and maybe even church members who get around to the Gathering if there’s nothing better to do on their plate.

And part of me, that part I’m not too sure about (he’s a weird mix of orneriness and zeal for the house of God), thinks, “I’ll wonder how long it would take to overwhelming outnumber the public atheistic gatherings in coffeehouses with Bible studies planted and supported by local churches?”

Not long, I suspect. Maybe it’s time to find out.

Gather, Church, this third Sunday of Advent, and rejoice in the coming of God to earth...then become a signpost pointing to this utterly unique and saving act by going out to be light in the darkness of your city.
Ormoc City, Leyte, Philippines (May 2014)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Then Shall Thy Light Break Forth

Thomas Thacher (1620-1678), pastor of the Old South Church in Boston, preached from Isaiah 58 at a solemn assembly in 1674. The title of the sermon was “A Fast of God’s Choosing, Plainly Opened For the Help of Those Poor in Spirit whose Hearts are Set to Seek the Lord their God in New-England, in the Solemn Ordinance of a Fast.”

(In an age of 140-characters, text-ese, and sound-bytes, I wonder if our economization of communication is actually better.)

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen?
to loose the bands of wickedness,
to undo the heavy burdens,
and to let the oppressed go free,
and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry,
and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?
when thou seest the naked,
that thou cover him;
and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning,
and thine health shall spring forth speedily:
and thy righteousness shall go before thee;
the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.
Then shalt thou call,
and the LORD shall answer;
thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am” (Isaiah 58:6-9, K.J.V.).

It’s a good read (it was published four years after Thacher preached it). The older I get, the more jealous I am for the style of those old preachers: they are so pastoral. Sometimes we speak of ministers as “soul-physicians,” but sometimes these guys are more like “soul-surgeons.” I listen to a few people who do this today (Sinclair Ferguson is especially good at this), but in general it’s hard to find them.

In speaking from verse 8 (“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning”), Thacher mentions several things that this spiritual light, this sign of God’s satisfaction, does in the life of believers coming out of a time of spiritual darkness (hence the need for the solemn assembly, repentance, and fasting). One of the things he mentions is that light illuminates just how dark the darkness was: “ is light after darkness when you now see that darkness had covered your souls whereas you previously did not know what your state and condition were.”

I know this darkness from personal (and pastoral) experience. It’s the tendency to see spiritual darkness as a circumstance brought about in your life through the actions of others. This gloom through which we trudge does not originate with us, but has wrapped itself around us through the selfish, ignorant, unjust, or wicked actions/words of others (so we think - we actually can't see anything correctly). I wouldn’t be in this inky pit if it weren’t for them, we tell ourselves (and probably plenty of others). We blind ourselves to our own spiritual darkness by insisting that it is something outside that has offensively been pushed on us.

We cannot see our own darkness.

In a few days I have to speak to a small-group Bible study about why I think a popular Bible teacher is not the best person from whom to learn. The main spiritual unhealthiness I think this teacher promotes is how we hear from the Lord (specifically, in extra-biblical personal revelation). I don’t want to just offer criticism at this meeting, so I was studying what the Bible had to say about hearing God. It’s a common theme in the Gospel of John. While I was doing this research, though, I re-read the story of the blind man in chapter 9. He is given sight by Jesus, but later interrogated by the Pharisees and cast out of the synagogue as a result of his testimony concerning Christ.

“Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:35-41).

The greatest darkness belongs to those who deny the darkness exists because of their own sin. Christ “gives them over” to this blindness (in the Romans 1:24,26,28 sense). This is how “they which see might be made blind.” Their decided condition is declared over them by the Lord.

“The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22,23).

“The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light” (Luke 11:34-36).

In both of these statements Jesus identifies the darkness not as something exterior to us, but something akin to what we now call “worldview.” Our philosophy of life, our way of seeing and evaluating everything in our experience of reality, is either one illuminated by the pure light of the wisdom of the Word, or is darkened by “vain...imaginations,” “their foolish heart,” “the vanity of their mind,” or “the blindness of their heart” (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17,18).

Yes, this is the continual state of unbelievers, but spiritual darkness can sometimes afflict believers.

“...through unbelief and the temptations of Satan, the sensible sight of the light and love of God may for a time be clouded and obscured from them, yet he is still the same, and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation” (1689 Baptist Confession, 17.1).

“Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, V).

This brings me back to Thacher’s sermon and Isaiah 58:8.

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...” This is a promise of God.

What brings the light that shows just how dark our darkness was?

“ loose the bands of wickedness,
to undo the heavy burdens,
and to let the oppressed go free,
and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry,
and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?
when thou seest the naked,
that thou cover him;
and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (58:6,7).

Sadly, when we go through times of spiritual darkness, we tend most to focus inward on ourselves (again, I say this out of personal and pastoral experience). With blind eyes continually gazing at the darkness, we, as Thacher said, do "not know what [our] state and condition" is. The remedy according to the Lord’s words through the prophet is just the opposite. We are commanded to do just the opposite of what our natural (sinful) instincts are when we are going through a season of darkness. Instead of falling deeper into the singularity (black hole), we are to turn outward to care for others. “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...”

Maybe you’re thinking, “but isn’t it hypocrisy to do these things if I don’t feel like doing them?”

The Lord Himself answers this a few chapters earlier (where He’s speaking about right observance of His sabbath): “Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed” (56:1).

It would be hypocritical to take care of others if we were attempting to procure salvation or righteousness for ourselves. That’s not the case in chapter 58. He’s calling His people (a people struggling in spiritual darkness) to a humble repentance, a fast, that consists in obeying His command to care for those in need. The goal isn’t salvation through righteousness. God Himself provided that a few chapters earlier. The purpose is obeying God (the fruit of those truly justified by faith). It’s not hypocrisy to do what God has commanded when you don’t feel like it. It’s spiritual discipline.

And He promises that the darkness will lift when we do it. One of the first things we realize with the coming light of dawn is just how dark the previous darkness had been. Our turning in on ourselves meant we weren’t caring for others – a rebellion against the command of the Lord. As a result He sends the darkness, usually through conflicts with others or difficult circumstances (which sometimes triggers depression). We deny the darkness belongs to us and blame others in our vain imaginations. And the darkness deepens.

Want to see reality? Consider your salvation (justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone) and obey God’s command to care for others – whether you feel like it or not. The light will dawn and you’ll see reality. Your darkness was yours.

Something else Thacher says: “...when this light that is promised is gradual, like the light of the morning that ‘shineth more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4:18). You must not say there is no light because it is not noon at dawn. If spiritually it is but the dawning of the day or the light of the morning star, you still have cause to acknowledge it is an answer to prayers. If it foreshadows the beginning of your return from spiritual captivity or outward calamity you are to acknowledge it as a springing light which shall go on to the perfect day in full perfection of glory.”

Believer bowed down in gloom, the light does not come from contemplating the murk (darkness cannot be seen for what it is while we are still blind to it). It comes with a faith in Christ that produces self-disciplined obedience to His commands to care for others selflessly.

 “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Psalm and the Sacramental Scattering

Do not slay them, lest my people forget;
Scatter them by Your power,
And bring them down,
O Lord our shield.
For the sin of their mouth and the words of their lips,
Let them even be taken in their pride,
And for the cursing and lying which they speak.
Consume them in wrath, consume them,
That they may not be;
And let them know that God rules in Jacob
To the ends of the earth. Selah”
(Psalm 59:11-13, N.K.J.V.).

When we consider the frequency of the verb “forget” in the Old Testament, we learn a bit about it. After the Psalter itself, the verb שכח occurs most in Deuteronomy (covenant renewed after the passing of a faithless generation) and Jeremiah (old covenant broken, new covenant promised). Forgetting is a threat to members of the covenant – the Church. The Psalm prays that unbelievers be scattered and not immediately judged to counter covenant unfaithfulness (forgetting).

The presence of hostile unbelievers as they besiege the camp of believers is sacramental. I’m not saying it is a sacrament (there are only two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper), but that it is sacramental (acts similarly to a sacrament). What do I mean by this?

The Westminster Divines describe a sacrament as that which makes clear “a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church, and the rest of the world” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 27.1) and something to “distinguish them from those who are without” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 162). Further, sacraments confer a “grace” which is “the work of the Spirit,” which contains a “word of institution” or “promise of benefit to worthy receivers” (W.C.F. 27.3). Christ gives a sacrament “to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace the benefits of His mediation, to strengthen and increase their faith” (W.L.C., Q. 162).

Christ is the lone Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). He is also the eternal Heir to David’s throne (Luke 1:31,32,68-75; Revelation 22:16). The Psalms not only speak of Him (Luke 24:44), but as the inspired songs of the Spirit of Christ, they are the Son’s very prayers.

The Son, then, in Psalm 59, prays that the besiegers do not immediately find destruction, but are scattered. It is the Mediator-King’s prayer on behalf of God’s people. This scattering marks a difference between the Church and the world, since the work of Christ is not to scatter His people, but gather them (Matthew 24:31//Mark 13:27; John 11:52; 2 Thessalonians 2:1). The scattering of the besiegers also strengthens the faith of those in the new covenant, preventing their forgetfulness (Psalm 59:11).

The continual existence of the enemies of the Church (until the last Day) keeps the Church from lapsing into apathetic forgetfulness. For now, the serpent is kept from deceiving “the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war” (Revelation 20:8). In this Age, the Church is gathered and the nations remain scattered by the Psalm 59:11 prayer of the Mediator-King. He does not outright destroy them – otherwise we would be tempted to forget the covenant. The scattering of the enemies is our preservation.

The scattering of the enemies of the Church also serves the Gospel mission of this Age, for the Church is created in every generation out of these scattered enemies. “...when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10). The Age will one day end. The continued existence of those who hate the Church is one way Christ preserves our faith (so that we do not forget our need for Him) and the means by which the Church is propagated (the Church grows through enemies converted). However, Christ (in Psalm 59:13) also prays for the coming Day of judgment.

Until that Day, we should regard the hatred of the world toward the Church as a gracious reminder of Christ’s sovereign defense and preservation of the Church (the Church outlasts every nation in history, no matter how mighty or determined to destroy the Church that nation is). We do not forget (hear the echoes of the “remembrance” from the Lord’s Supper, Luke 22:19//1 Corinthians 11:24,25) and therefore are held in the new covenant. The continued existence of those who hate us is Christ’s preserving grace to us.

“What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:22-24).

Rather than hand-wringing, give Him thanks and purpose to grow in faithfulness to Him and His mission (to see some from out of His enemies saved). Instead of scattering (a sign of judgment from the Mediator-King), let us gather in Him.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25).

Monday, November 24, 2014

Two Ways Out of Joppa

A good woman had died. She is described in Scripture as “full of good works and charitable deeds” (Acts 9:36). Her fellow believers were of such faith, that after her body had been prepared for burial, they called for the apostle Peter to come from a nearby town to where they were – in Joppa, a town on the Mediterranean. Peter “arose and went with” the messengers who came to summon him. God uses the apostle to bring the woman back to life. As a result, “many believed on the Lord” (9:42). I’m struck by the contrast between Peter’s journey to Joppa and an earlier trip to this seaport in Scripture.

“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:1-3).

(Almost as an aside, notice: for God, wickedness is the magnet for mission. Their exceeding wickedness is what God uses to bring the missionary, the command to “repent,” and salvation of that generation to Nineveh. Yes, the “nice” neighborhoods are filled with lost people who need Jesus, but God repeatedly speaks of the throne room of heaven echoing with the sounds of wickedness from notorious locales – Genesis 18:20; Ezra 9:6; James 5:4; Revelation 18:5. Sometimes He responds in His beautiful grace by sending a command to repent.)

Whereas Jonah, a “celebrity” preacher in his day (2 Kings 14:25), goes to Joppa to “flee...from the presence of the LORD,” the apostle Peter answers the call to Joppa for a cause seemingly even more hopeless than Nineveh’s spiritual deadness (Tabitha’s physical deadness). The result is an extension of earthly life for Tabitha and faith in Jesus Christ among many in Joppa. But that’s just a prelude to the real story: the fullness of God’s plan to save a people for Himself from out of all the peoples of the world, a plan going back to Genesis 9:26,26; 12:3.

“There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius!’ And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, ‘What is it, lord?’ So he said to him, ‘Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.’ And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa” (Acts 10:1-8).

Peter then sees a vision while praying on the roof. The point of the vision? “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (10:15). How does God “cleanse”? He cleanses “hearts by faith” (15:9), regardless of the ethnicity, nationality, or sinfulness of those hearts. How does God bring that faith into lives so that their hearts can be cleansed? The sending of the preacher to proclaim “glad tidings of good things” contained solely in “the Word of God” (Romans 10:9-17).

After getting to Joppa, Jonah took a ship to go to (what was for him) the end of the world to escape God’s plan of salvation. Peter prayed to draw closer to God, and the doors to the fullness of the Age of the Gospel opened: “Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate. And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.’ Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, ‘Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?’ And they said, ‘Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.’ Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him” (Acts 10:17-23).

For Jonah, it was Joppa to “the belly of Sheol...the moorings of the mountains...the pit” (Jonah 2:2,6). For the apostle Peter, it was the joy of being instrument and eyewitness to God’s grand work to redeem “to God by [Christ’s] blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9), in short, to bless “the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3; Paul calls this the Gospel in Galatians 3:8).

God got Jonah to Nineveh, and the result was the repentance of a generation (Nineveh would be destroyed by God’s judgment against their sin in the following generation). Peter, who himself had a history of running from God (Matthew 26:69-75//Mark 14:66-72//Luke 22:54-62), by simply going when God said “go,” got to see God “save the world” (John 12:47).

The Lord still says, “go.” Which way out of Joppa will you take, Church?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Gog and the Lord's Prayer

I was going to read out 1 Chronicles this morning, and didn’t get very far.

“The sons of Japheth were Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras” (1 Chronicles 1:5//Genesis 10:2, N.K.J.V.).

Having just finished spending most of the year preaching Genesis 1-12, these names were fresh on my mind. I knew a hung-over Noah had blessed Japheth not only with great numbers, but also a place in the tents of the covenant people of Yahweh (Genesis 9:26,27). But what about the rest of the family of Japheth, the ones who were not brought into the camp of the saints by faith? I know their story.

Ezekiel 38-39.

Revelation 20:7-10.

The peoples who do not enter the camp of the saints by faith will seek to destroy it by force. They will fail.

While reading the Ezekiel chapters again, I noticed a promise of God in the midst of it all. The Lord Yahweh promises to bring the unbelievers against His people (Satan and the nations only think they’re calling the shots) and then explains why He is doing it: “ that the nations may know Me, when I am hallowed in you, O Gog, before their eyes” (38:16).

The gathering of the nations against the people of Messiah, the Christ, is God’s providential answer to two things: a question and a prayer.

It is the answer to the question of the second song of the Psalter:
“Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying,
‘Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.’
He Who sits in the heavens shall laugh;
The LORD shall hold them in derision.
Then He shall speak to them in His wrath,
And distress  them in His deep displeasure:
‘Yet I have set My King
On My holy hill of Zion’” (Psalm 2:1-6).

They “rage” and “plot” so that they will come to know God (not savingly, but know Him as absolute Sovereign and Judge) and "so that" He will be made holy before them.

This antichrist(ian) gathering is the answer to the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer:
“Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name” (Matthew 6:9//Luke 11:2).

The citizens of the camp of the saints have prayed from the very beginning that God’s name be made holy. The answer from heaven to that fundamental and timeless prayer is the gathering of the nations to surround the camp of the saints, seeking their destruction. “ that the nations may know Me, when I am hallowed in you, O Gog, before their eyes” (38:16). The rallying of the nations against the camp is the granting of the First Petition, and the prayer of the First Petition results in the besieging of the camp.

It is God’s plan for the display of His glorious holiness before all the nations. Do not despair, but praise His holy name!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Image of God and Dominion

I meet Thursdays with a small group of men at a local coffee shop to discuss Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (1939). Last week we read the section on the image of God (imago Dei) in human beings. I was just a little irked that the Dutchman was very reluctant concerning the view that I personally hold: the image of God in man is primarily the dominion he was to hold over all creation.

He started out in his historical summary of the doctrine: “The Socinians and some of the earlier Arminians taught that the image of God consisted only in man’s dominion over the lower creation” (pg. 203). Yeah, I didn’t appreciate being lumped in with these guys.

Later, Berkhof – still seeming reluctant – discusses the reasoning why dominion is considered a possible aspect of the image Dei: “There is considerable difference of opinion as to whether man’s dominion over the lower creation also formed a part of the image of God. This is not surprising in view of the fact that Scripture does not express itself explicitly on this point. Some regard the dominion in question simply as an office conferred on man, and not as a part of the image. But notice that God mentions man’s creation in the divine image and his dominion over the lower creation in a single breath, Gen. 1:26. It is indicative of the glory and honour with which man is crowned, Ps. 8:5,6” (pg. 205). Honestly, the fact that the imago Dei and dominion are mentioned in the same God-breath should mean that the issue is profoundly settled, and that any discussion of the topic ought to start here and only very reluctantly leave! I’ll return to this in a moment, but I seriously wonder how Berkhof can say “that Scripture does not express itself explicitly on this point”?!

“To sum up it may be said that the image consists: (a) In the soul or spirit of man, that is, in the qualities of simplicity, spirituality, invisibility, and immortality. (b) In the psychical powers or faculties of man as a rational and moral being, namely, the intellect and the will with their functions. (c) In the intellectual and moral integrity of man’s nature, revealing itself in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10. (d) In the body, not as a material substance, but as the fit organ of the soul, sharing its immortality; and as the instrument through which man can exercise dominion over the lower creation. (e) In man’s dominion over the earth. In opposition to the Socinians, some Reformed scholars went too far in the opposite direction, when they regarded this dominion as something that did not belong to the image at all but was the result of a special disposal of God” (pg. 207). Berkhof himself seems to have been influenced by this going “too far,” but at least he included dominion in his summation.

I’m not saying that the imago Dei is limited solely to dominion (I think Berkhof does a good job covering the other possibilities and their biblical basis), but consider it to be the scripturally primary and foundational aspect.

In the dawning days of the new creation, the second Adam gives His spiritual children a “Great Commission” (the new covenant version of Genesis 1:28). It is framed by the dominion He holds as the Man in perfect reflection of God’s image (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3): All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

(By the way, the plural pronouns of Genesis 1:26 find their echo in the Trinitarian baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19 in the creation of a new humanity at the head of the new creation.)

Dominion is one of the foundational biblical principles behind the idea of “good news,” or Gospel: “How lovely on the mountains Are the feet of him who brings good news, Who announces peace And brings good news of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7).

The imago Dei in the second Adam is manifested in His absolute authority over all of Creation. He is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5), the One Who “overcame and sat down with [His] Father on His throne” (3:21), the One Who is named “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16), and is “the root and descendant of David” (the eschatological King, 22:16). Remember, too, that Jesus, sole authoritative Exegete of the Father (John 1:18), speaks constantly of “Kingdom” during His earthly ministry (something near 120 times!).

From the standpoint of a thoroughgoing biblical theology, dominion should be viewed as the chief aspect of the imago Dei. Humanity was to display the absolute sovereignty and reign of God on His eternal throne. We cannot think of ourselves without thinking of the King.

As I told the men last Thursday morning, the idea of the imago Dei is not just abstraction. Berkhof rightly touches on the moral/ethical implication when he says, “the doctrine of the image of God in man is of the greatest importance in theology, for that image is the expression of that which is most distinctive in man and in his relation to God” (pg. 206). He further points out that “the Bible represents murder as the destruction...of the image of God in man, Gen. 9:6” (pg. 205). I made the point to the men that how we define personhood and what our attitude is toward persons is determined largely by our doctrine of the imago Dei. What qualifies as “human” and how humans are to be treated is on the forefront of our society’s ethical identity crisis.

Well, that basically where it ended in the coffee shop the other day, but I’ve been thinking about it further since then, convinced that I was missing something obvious and more basic to the discussion. I think I found it today while splitting some firewood for kindling in the backyard this morning.

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule...’” (Genesis 1:26).  Perhaps more foundational to the doctrine of imago Dei is not what it is, exactly, but the fact that it is fact as a result of the proclamation of God. There needs to be a logocentric point at the base level of any consideration of this doctrine, I would think. The creation of God’s image in humanity at creation and the new humanity in the new creation is Word-based. When we are Word-centered, thinking God’s thoughts after Him, seeking to obey what He has commanded, aligning our relationships according to His revealed will, and viewing everything by a Word-created worldview, we will most accurately embody the imago Dei in this life. Merely exercising dominion, having morality, self-aware intelligence, respect for our bodies, existing in community (Berkhof didn’t mention this one, but I’ve read it in later 20th century systematic theologies), or any other option in the discussion of this doctrine, are all worthless unless they grow out of the presence of Scripture alone. “God said” must be the ground of our self-understanding as the imago Dei. As the apostle Peter said, “you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). It comes through the Christian community: “...this is the word which was preached to you” (1:25). The imago Dei is the presence of that Word which is God’s.

The imago Dei is introduced by its ground, “God said,” not just in the Scripture, but in truth (for the “Word is truth,” John 17:17). It is not subject to our manipulation, our redefinition, our opinion, or our preferences.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Her Children Rise Up and Bless Her

“But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother” (Galatians 4:26).

I love this verse. I love it more and more as I get older and fall more and more in love with the Church.

Here’s Martin Luther’s comment on this passage: “...this heavenly Jerusalem which is above, is the Church, that is to say, the faithful dispersed throughout the whole world, which have one and the same Gospel, one and the same faith in Christ, the same Holy Ghost, and the same Sacraments. Therefore understand not this word ‘above,’ αναγωγικως, of the triumphant heaven; but of the militant Church on earth. For the godly are said to have their conversation in heaven, Philippians 3: ‘Our conversation is in heaven,’ not locally, but in that a Christian believeth, in that he layeth hold of those inestimable, those heavenly and eternal gifts, he is in heaven. Ephesians 1: ‘Which hath blessed us with all spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ.’ We must therefore distinguish the heavenly and spiritual blessing from the earthly. For the earthly blessing is to have a good civil government both in commonweals and families; to have children, peace, riches, fruits of the earth, and other corporal commodities. But the heavenly blessing is to be delivered from the Law, sin, and death; to be justified and quickened to life; to have peace with God; to have a faithful heart, a joyful conscience and a spiritual consolation; to have the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the gift of prophecy, and the revelation of the Scriptures, to have the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and to rejoice in God. These are the heavenly blessings which Christ giveth to His Church. Wherefore Jerusalem above, that is to say, the heavenly Jerusalem, is the Church which is now in the world...the new and heavenly Jerusalem which is a queen and a free-woman, is appointed of God in earth and now in heaven, to be the mother of us all, of whom we have been gendered, and yet daily are gendered. Therefore it is necessary that this our mother should be in earth among men, as also her generation is. Notwithstanding she gendereth by the Holy Ghost, by the ministry of the Word and Sacraments, and not in the flesh” (from lectures at the University of Wittenberg in 1531, first published 1535).

The Church on earth is a heavenly institution, for its members receive identity and benefit from above. It is the result of our union with Christ, Who is at the right hand of the Father. This accomplished work – our being made part of the heavenly Church currently on pilgrimage down here – should remain an encouragement to us as we continue along the Way:
  • “...God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).
  • “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3).
  • “ have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22).

On my run yesterday I followed a new trail up a ridge. It was steep, and the barely-there trail was lined with cat-claw. When I finally made it to the top, a long stretch of the trail was still very muddy after a rain a week ago. The sludge stuck to my shoes, making running feel like clomping. Didn’t matter. The 360° view was exhilarating. I could see the townsite where I live two miles away from a totally different perspective. I could count distant mountain ranges in a few seconds all around. Beautiful. Exertion, scratches, and weighted down by mud...didn’t matter. The view from the top made me feel like I was flying.

Biblical truth on our heavenly estate ought to be received by faith. We should remind ourselves of it often (like the self-talking “O my soul” of the Psalmist). It should become our worldview.

The Church used of God the Holy Spirit to birth you through the Word and Sacraments has a heavenly address. “Her children rise up and bless her” (Proverbs 31:28). Well, we are risen. Where's the blessing? May it be so. It’s easy, popular, conformist, and natural to our flesh to criticize and hate on the Church (ignoring the fact that we are her children – our criticism makes us look very foolish since it reflects on us). Change your vision and speak transcendent truth over and about the Church. Is it possible that this would cleanse her of the clinging mud more effectively than our sarcasm, grumbling, and skepticism (since when is it good for us to be in agreement with the evaluation of the world)? I have found that most of the things that irritate me about the Church can be traced back to my own prayerlessness, lack of faith, lack of love, pride, etc. Tripping over my eye (Matthew 5:29), dark-eye (6:22,23), plank-in-the-eye (Matthew 7:3-5), you know.

Rise up, Church. Look up, Church. Walk upward, Church. Let this become your worldview, manifesting itself through your speech, attitudes, and actions.

This is freedom, for she is free. Paul and Luther (merely echoing Paul) speak truth.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Choking on the Psalm

“O LORD, do not rebuke me in Your anger,
Nor chasten me in Your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am pining away;
Heal me, O LORD, for my bones are dismayed.
And my soul is greatly dismayed;
But You, O LORD - how long?
Return, O LORD, rescue my soul;
Save me because of Your lovingkindness.
For there is no mention of You in death;
In Sheol who will give You thanks?
I am weary with my sighing;
Every night I make my bed swim,
I dissolve my couch with my tears.
My eye has wasted away with grief;
It has become old because of all my adversaries.
Depart from me, all you who do iniquity,
For the LORD has heard the voice of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my supplication,
The LORD receives my prayer.
All my enemies will be ashamed and greatly dismayed;
They shall turn back, they will suddenly be ashamed” (Psalm 6:1-10).

Me. My favorite topic. That’s how I consistently want to read the Scripture – through the interpretive framework of the most important person in the universe. Me, me, me. Then I get to verse 8a, where the Psalmist says, “depart from me, all you who do iniquity.” My first instinct is to think of all those workers of iniquity I’d like to banish from my presence. Nasty sinners. Mean people. Insensitive grumps. Ignorant Philistines. That’s the instinct. My self-centered, self-righteous, foolish, and sinful instinct. Because even as I try to pray this phrase as my own, I hear a much more authoritative Voice speaking these words...

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. 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; [as it says in Psalm 6:8a] depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:15-23).

Oh. This isn’t my Psalm. It’s my Lord’s song and prayer. A Psalm of David, the prophet of the risen Lord Jesus (Acts 2:30,31). Now I have to go back and re-read the Psalm, hearing my Master and Savior pray it in the long dark nights between dealing patiently with the needy and slow-to-believe. I have to hear His voice as He is hounded by the religious proud in their schemes. As He is rejected. Condemned. Scorned. Shamed. As He receives the cup – my cup (the one place I can say “me” is in the deserved wrathful dregs) – from His Father. As the Father rejects Him because of my iniquity, my lawlessness.

It’s not my song. It’s His.

“Return, O LORD, rescue my soul;
Save me because of Your lovingkindness.
For there is no mention of You in death;
In Sheol who will give You thanks?” (6:4,5).

And because it’s the song of His perfect, sinless, beloved Son, the Father hears the prayer and there is a third day, a resurrection day, the Lord’s Day.

“In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety” (Hebrews 5:7).

He sang the song, and He was heard. Hallelujah, He was heard!

“For the LORD has heard the voice of My weeping.
The LORD has heard My supplication,
The LORD receives My prayer” (Psalm 6:8b,9).

In the midst of this is the command to “depart from Me, all you who do iniquity.” When the Lord quotes it to His disciples, He says, “you who practice lawlessness” (those whose religion is the twisting, perverting, ignoring, and breaking of God’s Law).

The Psalm teaches us that the resurrection is an announcement of judgment against the enemies of the risen Christ. He will give command that His angels remove the lawless from His Kingdom (Matthew 13:41), for He hates lawlessness (Hebrews 1:9, quoting Psalm 45:7).

Lest this “Lord’s Prayer” become a cause of deep grief, beloved...

...remember the blessing: “But to the one who does not work [for his salvation], but believes in Him Who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David [in Psalm 32:1,2] also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those who lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.’ Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say [with Genesis 15:6], ‘faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him Who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He Who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:5-12,23-25).

...remember the great purchase: “...our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus...gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:13,14).

...remember the covenant with every lifting of the cup (for the cup points to the blood of the covenant, Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25): “And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying [in Jeremiah 31:33,34], ‘“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days,” says the Lord: “I will put My laws upon their heart, and on their mind I will write them,” He then says, “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin. 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 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 10:15-25).

Ah, the daily reading of the Psalms for this sinner: taking a big, deep breath to sing it out loudly from a self-centered heart, only to have the words get caught in my throat, choking on the Psalm, as I realize the Lord prayed them concerning me, the sinner, and then to realize that in the Father answering this petition from the Son through resurrection, I have life, too. It is beautiful beyond art and infinitely wiser than merely human words. It is gracious beyond what even the most perfect me I can imagine could ever deserve. It is the barest of tastes of how the days of eternity will be spent, for “in the ages to come He [will] show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).

He is good, and His merciful covenant-love endures forever and ever and ever...