Thursday, December 31, 2015

Thankfulness and Praise in Hebrews 1:4

“…having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they” (Hebrews 1:4).

I am thankful that the Son is not mere messenger.[1] He is the eternal Son of God, one of three divine Persons Who are personally distinct yet at the same time are one God.

Why is the Son’s superiority to angels the first apologetic to which the writer will commit lengthy ink (by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit)? The same reason most of the New Testament letters are written: to address error in practice or confession.

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day -  things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head [Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:10], from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) - in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:16-23). I include this long quote to show that the heresy Paul is fighting is not Gnosticism (some people see Gnosticism on every page of the New Testament, though the text itself doesn’t explicitly speak of this belief-system). The heresy is a Judaizing heresy, like most we encounter in the New Testament. The transition from the old covenant (and all the man-made traditions which had been attached to it) to the new covenant was not easy for the New Testament generation. The very first Church Council (Acts 15) had to address it.[2] This Judaizing heresy apparently included “the worship of angels.” What could this be? We don’t see any examples described for us of this sort of worship in the New Testament. Granted, there are innumerable examples of idolatrous worship in the Old Testament, but surely the Jews of the New Testament were no longer idolatrous, were they?

I think they were. But their idol was a little more difficult to battle.

Let’s look at three interesting passages that reveal something about Jewish thinking in the first century A.D. relevant to our meditation today:
  • “…you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:53).
  • “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator [Moses], until the Seed [Christ] would come to Whom the promise had been made” (Galatians 3:19).
  • “For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty” (Hebrews 2:2).

We see in Matthew 23:16-22 that there was a tendency among first century A.D. Jewish worshipers to make actions of devotion on lesser things (gold instead of temple, offering instead of altar, temple instead of the temple-Dweller, heaven instead of God and His throne). I believe that’s what’s behind this angel worship: their idol had become the Law by this time (and their interpretations/traditions attached to it), and since angels were part of its revelation to man, angels received adoration.[3] This is why it was important for Paul to attack angel worship in the Church in Colossae, and why the writer of Hebrews wants to be exceedingly clear that Jesus is infinitely greater than angels. Law-worshipers worshiped the angels who brought the Law; Jesus is not just an angelic messenger, but is the Son Who is eternal God.[4]

This is the seventh day of Christmas (swans a-swimming day), and as we continue to remember the coming of the Son into the world, let us make the connection between His humiliation (which began at the incarnation) and exaltation. The only proper response is worship and allegiance.

Because of Jesus’ humiliation from the incarnation to death on the cross, “God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10,11). This is the same point the writer of the letter to the Hebrews has just made: this Son Who is God’s final Word, the Mediator of creation, the One Who came down to earth to make “purification for sins” (1:4), is now the One Who is seated at the highest place of authority in the heavens and earth. Praise Him with great praise, Him Who is infinitely greater than the angels!

“Religious worship is to be given to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to Him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creatures” (1689 Baptist Confession, 22.2). Praise nothing less than God Who is Trinity. As result of His eternally divine nature, worship the Son.

Angels themselves do not permit any to worship them (Revelation 19:10; 22:8,9).[5] They recognize the Creator-creature distinction. They are creatures. Magnificent creatures with power and glory beyond our current comprehension. But just creatures. And creatures are not to be worshiped.

The eternal Son, however, has because of His birth, life, atoning death, resurrection, and ascension, has received a name – CHRIST (God’s anointed serpent-crushing Seed-of-the-woman King of all heaven and all earth). And at that name, let us worship.
One Lord's Day morning earlier this year, I
saw this in the sky over the front yard: a hole in
the clouds permitted the sunrise (behind me)
to shine through. Remarkable.

[1] This is what the word “angel” means: messenger. It means this in the Old Testament Hebrew word (מלאך) and the New Testament Greek word (αγγελος). In fact, the English word is just a cognate borrowed from the Greek.
[2] It’s still a danger today with those Christians who would read the Old Testament other than in the light of Christ as revealed in the New Testament, and those who would build a modern society of laws based on the old covenant civil code.
[3] I think this is what’s behind the phrase “the tongues…of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1). It’s Hebrew, the language in which the Law of Moses was given. This has a role to play in the greater section 1 Corinthians 12-14 and the tongues controversy, but that’s a tale for another day.
[4] This is a germane point in today’s world because of Islam. In the same passages which condemn Trinitarian theology, Jesus is also relegated to being mere messenger of Allah: “Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not ‘Trinity.’ Desist: it will be better for you, for Allah is One Allah. Glory be to him (for Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all things in the heavens and on earth…they disbelieve who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity, for there is no god except One God. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them. Why turn they not to Allah and seek His forgiveness? For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Christ the son of Mary was no more than a Messenger; many were the Messengers that passed away before him...” (4.171; 5:72-74, Yusef Ali translation). The Muslim Jesus is less than Allah (certainly not of the same divine essence from all eternity), and is in equal status with other supernaturally-given messengers.
[5] Human messengers do not permit this, either, if they are truly messengers of God (Acts 10:25,26; 14:11-15).

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Thankfulness and Praise in Hebrews 1:3

“And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” (Hebrews 1:3).

I am thankful that to see God, I need only to look to the Son. When I look at the Son, my spiritual sight is then drawn to the Father Who sent His Son (John 1:18; 14:9). When I look at the Son, I do so by the Son-given Spirit Who also inspired the Word which reveals the Son. Glorious Trinity! The “doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him…religious worship is to be given to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to Him alone” (1689 Baptist Confession, 2.3; 22.2). Praise Him with great praise! If 1:1 is the Old Testament, then remember that 1:2 is the God’s final all-sufficient Word the Son in the New Testament. There Jesus is revealed to us fully, and He is all we need to see to see God. We also learn how we are to live and the people of the Son. Praise Him for this full life in the glory and nature of God!

I am thankful that He “upholds all things by the word of His power.” The Son as mediatorial Creator is not a single past-time event. It is continual. Nothing exists outside of the unceasing creative power of the Son Who is the Word of God (Psalm 33:6; John 1:1-3). He, being fully God, is infinitely greater than this entire universe. I remember reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time long, long ago. The goal of his work as a theoretical physicist was to construct a picture of “a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.”[1] Nothing new there. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) also believed in an eternal creation, making creation the Absolute instead of any Creator. The apostle explains it this way a few centuries later: “…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, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, Who is blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 1:20-25). The response to an unimaginably large and complex and varied creation is to be utterly awed by the Absolute and infinitely greater Creator… to “honor Him as God” and “give thanks.” Praise Him with great praise, for all that is exists derivatively from the One Who is Being. Not only that, but if the Word of God Who is eternally One with God continuously creates this universe, what can His perfectly-inspired written Word do in our lives by the power of the Spirit He has given us?

I am thankful that He has fully accomplished the “purification of sins.” This is the sixth day of Christmas (“geese a-laying” day), the sixth day celebrating His coming. The Son is the Law-Giver.[2] All of us have violated that Law. He came to this world to pay the penalty for the lawlessness of His people (Matthew 1:21). Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin (1 John 3:5). This Good News is built on the foundation of God’s speaking in Hebrews 1:1. The Fall, the Law, the sacrifices for violations of that Law, the Promise of a final Prophet, Priest, and King…all of these are in the revelations God made to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways” (1:1). And this points to my infinitely-heavy debt to God for violating His Law. He is worthy of praise in the Big Story and in my personal Small Story, for He is the Resolution of my greatest problem: lawlessness before the Law-Giver.

I am thankful that when I consider the power and authority over the entire universe, I rest in the fact that He is also the One “Who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). The more and more I read the Book, the more and more I see His absolute sovereignty revealed to us. It is on the first page, where being made by the plural Him in His “image” and “likeness” is immediately followed by the decree “let them rule” (Genesis 1:26) – His image is sovereignty. It is on the last page, where “the root and the descendant of David” (Revelation 22:16) is prayed to (showing His divinity) with the supplication, “come, Lord Jesus” (22:20), and is the Source of all we need, “the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (22:21).[3] He is sitting down at the highest place of authority in the universe. He is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet (Ephesians 1:21,22). He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). The resurrected Lord tells the eleven on that hill in Galilee, “all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth(Matthew 28:18). Resting by faith in this truth is the greatest praise I can offer Him this day.
Antelope on the run.

[1] Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), x.
[2] “…Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver” (1689 Baptist Confession, 19.3).
[3] Jesus as Fulfillment of the Davidic covenant is a massively important and relevant doctrine that I’ve only really awakened to in the last few years. He is identified in the first words of the New Testament as “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David” (Matthew 1:1), and, as I cited above, He is identified according to the Davidic covenant on the last page of the New Testament. The Davidic covenant is invoked in one of Paul’s earliest works (Romans 1:3) and one of his latest (2 Timothy 2:8). It is relevant because Christians are so obsessed with the earthly rulers and powers that I fear they spend very little time resting in the only eternal King and His current absolute power.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Thankfulness and Praise in Hebrews 1:2

“…in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, Whom He appointed heir of all things, through Whom also He made the world” (Hebrews 1:2).

I am thankful that the Son is the final Word. “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, Who is Himself the focus of divine revelation” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, I). While 1:1 spoke of the Old Testament, 1:2 speaks of the New Testament, which gives us the direct sun which caused the shadows of the Old Testament. We now see clearly. Through His apostolic writers, the Holy Spirit has given us a Word all-sufficient and adequate for “these last days.” He has provided all we need, and is with us as we open the Book together to grow in knowledge of the Son to the glory of the Father. Praise Him for His Christ-centered plan (thank goodness it’s not about me) and provision!

I am thankful that this Son is Inheritor of all. It’s all His by right. They thought they would take His kingdom by killing Him (Matthew 21:38). Ah, but the Father has given all things into His ever-living hands (John 13:3), including authority over all flesh (John 17:2). And – I can scarcely begin to consider it – as children of God in Christ, we are called co-heirs (Romans 8:17)…I fear thinking too much on this lest I fall into foolishness, but I am confident it is a hope worth perseverance and endurance (read here for some thoughts on the Table and our sharing in His sufferings as co-heirs). Praise Him for His rightful ownership and authority over all, for He is just and wise and good!

I am thankful that this remarkable creation I love so much is not the result of blind, cold natural law or exceedingly improbable chance, but of a Person, the Son (John 1:3,10; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 3:9; Colossians 1:16,17; Hebrews 1:10). Being made through the One Who would be declared Christ, I like to say that creation is Christian. Here, though, the Holy Spirit tells us that the Father created time through the mediation of His Son: “…through Whom also He did make the ages [τους αιωνας]” (Young’s Literal Translation). He is the eternally divine Person Who is Master of all ages and moments: “All things come to pass unchangeably and certainly in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, Who is the first cause. Thus, nothing happens to anyone by chance or outside of God’s providence. Yet by the same providence God arranges all things to occur according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or in response to other causes” (1689 Baptist Confession, 5.2). See also Psalm 139:16; Daniel 2:21; Acts 17:26. Time and history are the result of the Father’s creation according to His perfect plan through the continual mediation of His Son, Who is the goal of time and history – including my small apportionment of that time and history. How could I not praise He Who alone is worthy? Every beat of the heart in my chest, every second that passes on the clock, He owns. He purposed it, made it, and destined it to bring Him ultimate glory. Be in awe, grow in your faith, and praise Him with great praise!
Cottonwood gold reflected in Bear Canyon Reservoir.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Thankfulness and Praise in Hebrews 1:1

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways…” (Hebrews 1:1).

I am thankful God speaks. Who He is and what He demands from His creation (for demanding is His absolute right as Creator) is not left to our imagination or speculation. He reveals Himself and teaches us how to understand all that He has made and done. His speech is a graceful stooping down from the infinite to the finite, from the eternal to this moment. Praise Him, for He speaks.

I am thankful God has preserved a people for Himself through the long ages past. They were just as messed up as we are, Church, but He preserved them and spoke to them and worked through them. To paraphrase Malachi 3:6, He is the One Who does not change. Ever. Because of that the “fathers” were not wiped out (even though they deserved it). And because of that we are not wiped out (even though we deserve it). He is steadfast and faithful, along with being good and gracious. Praise Him Who does not change as the faithful Preserver of His people.

I am thankful that when God spoke through the ages, He used flawed human beings from among His covenant people to give us a providentially arranged and Christ-centered Book without any error or inadequacy. The weird stuff’s there on purpose. So is the challenging stuff. So are the long lists of names and numbers. It all fits together describing His plan to sum up “all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things in the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). I love that plan because it’s far beyond what I can imagine. He “can do all things,” and “no purpose” of His “can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). He has spoken, and it’s perfectly about Christ. Praise Him for pointing us to His Son through the long ages past.

I am thankful for the artful and exquisite tapestry of the Bible, which is narrative, poetry, wisdom, law, and vision. He is the Artist. As if creation wasn’t enough, the magnificence of His Book delights the soul. I’ve spent the year reading Andrew Peterson’s On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness to my children. Finished last night. Tears came to my eyes on the last pages because of the words of a dead father to his eldest son through a letter…what moved me wasn’t words invented by Peterson, but the Scripture those words echoed. The astounding, heart-breaking, soul-healing, mind-training Art of the Absolute. Truth so beautiful and eternal. Praise Him for this.
Snowy mid-November scene on my commute...I never get tired
of seeing His handiwork on my daily drive!

Friday, December 11, 2015

The King, His Kingdom, and His Power

On the Lord’s Day nine days from now I’m speaking on the Davidic covenant from Romans 1:3, so I’ve been thinking about the importance of David in the Gospel. From the first chapter of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1) to the last (Revelation 22:16), God’s promise to David and its fulfillment in Christ is a massively important theme for the Book.

When we think about the Davidic covenant, I’ve usually limited my thinking to the King Himself.[1] Especially during this time of year, the Advent season, we read the promise of Gabriel, messenger of God, to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

Who was the king under the old covenant, and Who is the King under the new covenant?

David → Jesus Christ

Yesterday, meditating on the Davidic covenant, I began to think about the further implications beyond the King Himself.

Where was David’s throne under the old covenant, and where is the new David’s throne under the new covenant?

Enthroned in earthly Jerusalem → Enthroned in heavenly Jerusalem

While David reigned on his throne in the earthly Jerusalem under the old covenant (1 Kings 11:36; 1 Chronicles 23:25; 2 Chronicles 6:6; Jeremiah 3:17), the King of kings reigns on His throne in the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 3:12; 21-22).

What was David’s kingdom under the old covenant, and where is the new David’s kingdom under the new covenant?

Reigning over Israel & Judah → Reigning over heaven and earth

During the regency of David and his son Solomon the boundaries of the kingdom expanded to the range promised to Abraham (Genesis 15:18; 1 Kings 4:21). But this was the old covenant. As Christ is infinitely greater than David, and the heavenly Jerusalemite throne is infinitely greater than the earthly Jerusalemite throne, so, too, is the new covenant kingdom exponentially greater than the old covenant kingdom.

The new covenant kingdom is not limited to a single nation, a single people-group, or a single piece of real estate. The new covenant kingdom is “in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Why? Because that’s where the citizens of the kingdom are. They are from out of “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) on earth. They are counted in heaven.

The “gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, Who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:1-3), is the same Gospel which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16). “The Jew…and also…the Greek” is a Pauline concept which means “all people groups.” The King is Jesus Christ, Seed of David. His throne is in heaven. His kingdom is over all of heaven and all of earth, and His loyal subjects are found scattered in every corner of the earth and enthroned in heaven. In the first chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul reminds us that the Gospel of the Son of David, the King, is the Gospel that is God’s very power. The power of His reign is the proclamation of His Gospel, not the strategies and means of worldly power. It is about the Gospel of Jesus Christ being proclaimed by His Church everywhere. And until we re-learn this lesson, Church, we will continue to see our power and influence get smaller and smaller.

Your efforts to rebuild the kingdoms of David, Solomon, and Constantine will fail, because each of these would be a pitiful, small, Gospel-denying step backwards.

It’s about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Imagine if our efforts, financial support, energy, and speech were thrown behind this evangelistic global mission as much as it is behind the little political games and conspiracies of the world system!

The Gospel, and nothing else, because it’s the means of the power of the King of kings throughout His all-encompassing Kingdom. Return to your Bibles, Church! Read the whole Book, Church! And repent. It's all bigger than you think it is, and the power is simpler (and mightier) than you think it is.

[1] The Davidic covenant is described in 2 Samuel 7:8-16; 1 Chronicles 17:1-14; Psalm 89:26-36; Acts 2:30. There are many, many other passages I could cite, as well, but these are the foundational ones.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Be the Church

One of the most basic characteristics of God’s people is that they gather.

Not a revolutionary or new statement, but it continually needs to be said. This isn’t me writing as a paid representative of the Institution.[1] I’m putting proverbial pen to digital paper because of something I noticed this last week studying Esther.

In Esther 8:11, the new second-in-command of the Persian Empire (Mordecai the Jew) writes a law with the king’s authority granting, among other things, the right to assemble (the Hebrew verb קהל is used). The assembly of the Jews is an important repeated theme at the turnaround of their fortunes in this curious little tale.[2]

“Assembly” (קהל) is “Church” (εκκλησια).
This word (קהל), both its verb and noun forms, is important for a theological reason. What would happen to this word when the world started speaking Greek and the Old Testament was translated into that language? I thought I knew the answer, but wanted to check. I opened my Hebrew/Aramaic Index to the Septuagint (a riveting action story!) and confirmed my suspicions.[3] The word קהל, when it was translated into Greek, becomes εκκλησια, which is the word for “Church” in the New Testament.

Still with me?

Jesus is the first Person to use the word “Church” in the New Testament. In a short space of text, He gives us both the foundational definitions of the Gathering means:
·         In Matthew 16:13-20, it is the universal body of all those who share God the Father’s heaven-given (not earth-invented) confession of the Son. Jesus identifies Himself as continual Builder of this assembly, and says that hell cannot stop it.
·         In Matthew 18:15-20, it is a local body, as well, of individuals who are part of what’s described in 16:13-20, but also have a definite membership with standards of ethics and the ability to discipline.[4]

Jesus will, through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of His apostles, fill both of these foundational statements in throughout the writings of the rest of the New Testament.[5]

Even though Jesus is the first Person to use the word “Church/church” in the New Testament, His statements in Matthew 16 and 18 are not new. When He says εκκλησια, He is drawing upon an idea with a lot of precedent in the Old Testament word קהל. Folks will usually start with the Greek word εκκλησια, read its definition in a lexicon (it literally means “called-out ones”), and sadly build a theology that minimizes or eliminates the vital importance of the Gathering. No! Εκκλησια, the Greek word used in the New Testament for the idea called “Church,” is built upon קהל, the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for “assembly,” or “gathering.” The Lord of the Church didn’t innovate the idea that day in “the district of Caesarea Philippi” almost 2,000 years ago. He was laying claim to His authority over a reality that had been happening since the days of the founding of the old covenant through Moses at Mount Sinai after the Exodus! This is why Stephen, with the last words he is allowed to say on this earth, has no problem dropping the εκκλησια word (the one used for “Church/church” in the rest of the N.T.) to describe the old covenant group that has Moses as its leader: “This Moses…is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.’  This is the one who was in the congregation [here it is: εκκλησια] in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you” (Acts 7:35-38).

Jesus isn’t creating in Matthew 16 and 18. He’s claiming something that’s already there is His to rule, and it’s His to define.

None of this is new teaching at all. My point is not to share new information that no one’s shared before. The reason for this post is to get us away from that lexicon theology that looks up εκκλησια, sees its basic definition as “called-out ones,” and builds a theology (‘cause we all have theology, my friends, even if you don’t like it!) that says, “‘church’ means ‘called-out ones,’ so I don’t have to attend the get-togethers of the ‘institutional’ church to be a part of the true church.”

Εκκλησια is not a key to missions-at-the-expense-of-gathering, but is built upon קהל, a previously-existing idea that means “gathering.”

The Church gathers. It’s what it means to be the Church. You gather. Yes, we go. Yes, we are missional everywhere we are. But most foundationally we gather as Christ-confessing people in identifiable local bodies to teach each other to obey Christ’s commandments (and there’s a lot to that). The Church gathers, and always has.

Let’s look at a few uses of the verb קהל in the Law of Moses:
·         “…Moses assembled [קהל] all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and said to them, ‘These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do…’” (Exodus 35:1).
·         “…the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘…assemble [קהל] all the congregation at the doorway of the tent of meeting.’ So Moses did just as the Lord commanded him. When the congregation was assembled at the doorway of the tent of meeting, Moses said to the congregation, ‘this is the thing which the Lord has commanded to do.’” (Leviticus 8:1-3).
·         “So Moses and Aaron took these men who had been designated by name, and they assembled [קהל] all the congregation together on the first of the second month. Then they registered by ancestry in their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, head by head, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. So he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:17-19).
·         “Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Assemble [קהל] the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children’” (Deuteronomy 4:10).
·         Assemble [קהל] the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 31:12,13).

Did you hear the “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” part of the Jesus’ “Great Commission” to His disciples (Matthew 28:20) in those passages? Oh, beloved, this is what it means to “be the Church”! We gather. We hear and learn together, and hold each other accountable in doing this, and we go out to live what we have heard. The going out and obeying is not “being the Church,” but the assembly to hear what to obey is “being the Church”! This is a theology built not on a lexicon definition, but the whole Bible!

Gather. It’s what the Church does.

[1] “Institution” is the new bad word to describe organized, structured gatherings of the local Church. The descriptor doesn’t bother me. The Church was instituted by Jesus, and is therefore “a thing instituted,” what would be called an “institution.” One of the things He did when He instituted it by His apostles was give it organizational structure (including leadership and membership), limitations, rules/commandments, and purposes/commission. Fits the “institution” definition to me. Negative labels are tools of people with agendas. What’s the agenda here, I wonder?
[2] In fact, other than Numbers, Esther contains the highest number of uses of the verb קהל, “gather.” See 8:11; 9:2,15,16,18.
[3] Takamitsu Muraoka (Baker Academic, 1998).
[4] I say “definite membership,” because when Jesus says, “tell it to the church,” it doesn’t seem likely He has the global phenomenon in mind. Whoever this local, definite group is, it has regulatory authority over individual members’ access to participating in the assembly. Matthew 16 does not describe an amorphous, universal church idea (but doesn’t contradict it, either).
[5] Most of the New Testament addresses the local congregation, or assembly. Their truths can be universally applied, but the books of the N.T. are written to specific local congregations, and are meant to be applied by all other specific local congregations. Statements about the “universal church” are present in the N.T., but are definitely in the minority.

Monday, November 9, 2015

I Love You, But Your Flowers Stink

Starbucks™ takes snowflakes off their red holiday cups and does not use the phrase “Merry Christmas.”

Christians freak out.


Just a reminder (again) of one of my rules of life: do not be surprised when non-Christians (or companies owned and run by non-Christians) do not act like Christians. They cannot act like Christians and should not act like Christians. If you got your wish, they’d look Christian on the outside but would still be unconverted and on their way to hell. The counterpoint to this life-rule is: always be surprised when Christians act like non-Christians. Always.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written [in Habakkuk 2:4b], ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16,17).

Snowflakes aren’t the Gospel. Neither is Santa Claus, red cups, or the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Neither is Christendom, a “Christian culture,” or a “Christian nation” (three ideas not found in the New Testament).

I meet with a group of men on Thursday mornings. We’re reading slowly through Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. We meet in a local coffeehouse. The barista is a New Age sort of guy who listens to Peruvian flute music and is seeking divinity through natural medicines. I have no idea what that last part means, though I ask him and listen when he tells me. We call each other by first names. I offer to pray for concerns he mentions and always try to inject Gospel views on things he brings up. I don’t remember if he says “Merry Christmas” or not. I will not yell it at him if he doesn’t next month.

Only the Gospel saves. A “Merry Christmas” culture does not. I say that as someone who loves the Christmas season more than all of you put together. We will pass out bags of candy (with a Gospel tract in each bag) at our town's Christmas parade at the end of this month. Next month we'll go caroling in two towns in our county. We aren't trying to establish Christian culture. We are engaging our community with the hope of presenting the Gospel to individuals, praying the Holy Spirit uses that presentation to save souls through faith in Christ. They can decorate their cups however they want and use whatever greetings they want. I don't care about their culture or business. I care about their lost souls.

By the way, some of you wanting to exert pressure on Starbucks were the same ones rallying to Chik-fil-A’s defense a few years ago. And then Hobby Lobby. I was with you on all those things, but where’s your freedom of speech, freedom of liberty, and desire for a free marketplace now? I thought we believed business owners could follow their conscience. I had these same thoughts long ago when my denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) tried to boycott Disney. Meanwhile, it’s quite a struggle to get our resource company (Lifeway) to keep from selling heresy.

By the way, the same folks wanting to build a Christian culture have (in my estimation) pretty lax views on other cultural issues (Halloween, entertainment choices, alcohol, and the setting aside of the Lord’s Day). Consistency, anyone? The 50’s you’re trying to rebuild wouldn’t approve of some of your choices, my friend.

Anyway, I had one of those days last week. One moment I (jokingly) felt like an awesome life coach. Then I sat with an elderly woman in an assisted living facility for an hour while she told me repeatedly that her husband had just stepped into the next room (he had passed away two days earlier). A bit after than (same morning) I tried to counsel someone with some issues I’ve dealt with – how do you counsel someone into a maturity it’s taken you decades to barely reach? Still determined to stay positive (life-coaching myself, I suppose), I decided to bring my bride home a 12-pack of Coke and some roses. Coke, check. All the roses, though, looked tired and wilted. I grabbed some stargazer lilies and brought them with the Coke instead. Guess what: stargazer lilies have a pretty strong smell. After a day of torturing the family, I relocated my stinky love flowers outside our dining room window. My bride could see them, but no one was given a headache. Sometimes, in our desire to do a good thing, we unintentionally cause harm to the household.

She appreciated the flowers, but nobody in the house enjoyed the smell. I appreciate your desire to fix our broken society/culture/nation, but don’t care for the fact that you’re using the wrong flowers to do it. Yours stink. Your militancy for Christian culture is missing the Gospel. I'm sorry for my snarky tone (snark takes no maturity or skill, and it comes way too naturally to me), but I have lost friends. I work continually to maintain relationship with them and am thinking of them in every word I say in person or post online. You should see what they're saying about your misplaced priorities and wrong facts. It breaks my heart because this is a stumbling block to them ever receiving the Gospel. Jesus said pretty serious things about being a stumbling block.

Only the Gospel saves. It doesn’t save a culture or company, but individuals, “the Jew first and also…the Greek.” Read the Book again. Remember the Gospel. Say it out loud. Write it down. Tell it to each other. Tell it to the barista instead of yelling “Merry Christmas” to him or her.

Only the Gospel saves.

Only the Gospel saves.
* * * * * * *
By the way, a sister in the Lord posted this perspective-giving pic. I concur.

Another sister posted this. Just as true.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Another Halloween Post.

It seems like the pro-Halloween articles multiply exponentially every year.

As for me and my house, we’re still not doing Halloween.

It’s not because we don’t believe in “fun” or dress-up. We do that to some degree about 80% of the days of the year. Myself included.

It isn’t because we are anti-evangelistic or are against being missional. We have developed and nurture relationships with non-Christian (and marginally Christian) neighbors and community members.

I'm not anti-culture. Tomorrow's my birthday. My presents are on the table in the dining room wrapped in Stars Wars paper. I wish I could be in Taos for their jazz festival at the end of November honoring the late Frank Morgan. I love listening to Frank Morgan. I will watch college football this afternoon. Culture rocks.

Yes, I’ve seen the dozen articles that argue Halloween to be a “Christian holiday.” Here’s the thing about that: Martin Luther.

You see, I admit only one Christian holiday, strictly speaking: the Lord’s Day. Happens every week. Any other day I choose to have any involvement with is not because the Roman Catholic Church has declared it a holiday. I’m not Roman Catholic. 498 years ago today, Martin Luther unknowingly fired the first figurative shot of the Protestant Reformation. So, not only do I not observe Halloween (or All Hallows’ Eve), but I also don’t observe All Saints’ Day. I’m in the Southwest U.S. I don’t observe El Día de los Muerto, either. I don’t go to Mass. Don’t do Ash Wednesday. Don’t do saints’ feast days. I am, by my convictions from the Bible and historical inheritance from the Protestant Reformation, decidedly and annoyingly thrilled to be a Baptist.

So, no. I don’t think Halloween is “Christian.”[1] If we wanted to observe it, we would be free to by our convictions. No “Church” has told us to or told us not to.

Your kids sure are adorable in their costumes, and I love seeing the pictures. I’ve got my Santa Claus hat on right now, both to keep my ears warm and because we put our Christmas tree up last night. Because we can. That may seem weird, but lots of people will paint their faces as skulls or zombies or whatever today. I think that’s weird.

For us, it was Christmas lights, The Polar Express, the first fireplace fire of the season, and cocoa last night. Not because it was a “Christian holiday,” but because we wanted to. I don’t share this with my kids (maybe I should), but I cannonball dive into enough darkness in other people’s lives during the year as their pastor, trying by the grace of God to fulfill Galatians 6:2 in love. I don’t need to make darkness a comic and play with it tonight. Some people might find release in doing so. Not me. Children’s funerals, spousal infidelity, aging issues, addictions, and just plain old run-of-the-mill depression are enough for me. I am haunted enough and praying for countless spiritually dead people – pretend hauntings and the undead aren’t fun to me. So this is the confession: I might not be primarily sheltering my children (though, as my wife says, I wouldn’t let them watch a horror movie, so why would I open the door to a stranger with a bloody axe in his head?). It could be that I am choosing against the play-acting darkness because I’ve seen enough this year in the lives of people I love and shepherd. I don’t need or want any more. The phone could ring at any moment. I’ll seek my “fun” elsewhere.

Maybe I’ll grow out of it. Probably not. I don’t have to. Martin Luther. This is Reformation Day. I am freed from the Roman Catholic calendar, and bound only (in my theological tradition) to the Lord’s Day. Whatever else I choose to participate in is in Christian liberty of conscience (Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 ought to have some bearing on how we treat each other on days like this).

My Christmas tree’s up. Earlier than ever this year. It’s not a “Christian” tree. It’s a fun, light, sweet thing that’s now a little funnier and quirkier because we did it on Halloween Eve (All Hallows’ Eve, Eve?).

So I’m going to be just as fun-loving (I do love fun) and “missional” (the word used to guilt non-participating Christians into Halloween-ing) today as I was yesterday and will be tomorrow. Not because a day is “Christian,” but because I am, and this is what I am called to do every day wherever I am and in whatever I’m doing.

Let me finish with my favorite of Luther’s 95 Theses, number 62: “The true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”
House decorated for Halloween, costume ready, coffee good.

[1] Of course, there is the sense in which all things are Christian, since they were created through Christ (John 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 8:7; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2) and are maintained at every moment by Christ (Hebrews 1:3).

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Exalted Fountain of Our Praise and Obedience

“For the choir director; on a stringed instrument. A Psalm of David.
Hear my cry, O God;
Give heed to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For You have been a refuge for me,
A tower of strength against the enemy.
Let me dwell in Your tent forever;
Let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings. Selah.
For You have heard my vows, O God;
You have given me the inheritance of those who fear Your name” (Psalm 61:1-5).

“You will prolong the king’s life;
His years will be as many generations.
He will abide before God forever;
Appoint lovingkindness and truth that they may preserve him.
So I will sing praise to Your name forever,
That I may pay my vows day by day” (61:6-8).

Verses 6-8 is a choral intercession the Holy Spirit gave the Church through David for the King. We have only one King: the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-46; 28:18; Luke 19:38; John 18:37; Ephesians 1:20-22; Revelation 1:5; 11:15; 17:14; 19:16).

The Father lifted up His Son from the grave to the eternal throne (Acts 2:24; 3:15,26; 10:40; 13:30; Romans 4:24; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 2:12; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 1:21). We sing of the Father’s doing this work in His Son the King: “You will prolong the King’s life; His years will be as many generations. He will abide before God forever; appoint lovingkindness and truth that they may preserve Him...”

What is the result of this for our lives as the Church? So [כן] I will sing praise to Your name forever, that I may pay my vows day by day.” The Father’s exalting the throne of His resurrected Son enables us to sing forever of His glory. We cannot, would not sing apart from the Father’s exalting of the Son. We cannot sing forever apart from the enthronement of the resurrected Son.

Out of our union with the resurrected heavenly King we sing forever. And out of this we are further enabled to remain faithfully obedient to Him. It doesn't get more practical than this.

Our praise and obedience are the fruits of the act of God in exalting His Son. It is not of us. We cannot boast in ourselves. It is the divinely gifted “inheritance of those who fear [His] name.”

Sing. Serve. Pray.

Until we’re Home:
“Let me dwell in Your tent forever;

Let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings.”

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Law, Prophets, and a Lesson About Gathering

“And you will say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD, “If you will not listen to Me, to walk in My law [תורה] which I have set before you, to listen to the words of My servants the prophets, whom I have been sending to you again and again, but you have not listened; then I will make this house like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse to all the nations of the earth”’” (Jeremiah 26:4-6).

Ask most people what prophets do, and they will tell you that prophets foretell the future. I have been convinced for a long time that such an understanding of the prophets and biblical prophecy misses a crucial message of the biblical Prophets (and those who echo them in the New Testament). I contend that the Prophets applied the Law of Moses to their audiences in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They communicated using language meant to move hard hearts – powerful language with dramatic imagery and edgy language. Their “future telling,” when it is present at all (not nearly as often as we’ve grown accustomed to think), is merely an application of the curses for covenant violation in the Law (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). The Law promised invasion by a foreign army and deportation. The Prophets, in seeing covenant violation among the people, promised this would come. And it did.

Learning one thing revolutionized my reading of the Bible, and that one thing is seeing parallelism.[1] The Hebrew language is not highly technical (like Greek) – the Old Testament writers say one thing several different ways to further illuminate their meaning.

Consider this parallelism:
  • “...listen to Me, to walk in My law [תורה] which I have set before you...”
  • “ listen to the words of My servants the prophets, whom I have been sending to you again and again...”

Both of these phrases are introduced with the verb “listen” (שמע), setting up the parallelism as clear as possible for us. Both “law” and “the words of My servants the prophets” are the words of the LORD to His covenant people.

From the standpoint of the doctrine of the Bible, the Law is foundational. The New Testament shows us the Lord Jesus and His apostles continually citing the Law as authoritative teaching. The Prophets of the Old Testament rely on the Law in the same way. There is no fullness to your understanding of later passages of Scripture if you aren’t familiar with what came before. Sadly, most people’s reading of the Prophets leans forward rather than backward. I find the same to be true in most attempts to interpret Revelation.

The LORD, speaking through Jeremiah, places His Law and Prophets in parallelism.

False prophets do not speak the words of the LORD (applying His Law), but speak their own words. “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD” (23:16). “‘Behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who use their tongues and declare, “The Lord declares”’” (23:31).

Prophecy is the Spirit-empowered application of the Law to the lives of God’s people with the goal of moving them to repentance from their sin before the Lord. I would use this definition for most of New Testament “prophecy,” as well (especially as described in Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12,14; Ephesians 4:11). We would put it under the category “preaching” these days, though the Bible seems to have parsed the categories of prophetic preaching of the Law for conviction, evangelistic preaching of the Gospel for the giving of grace (to believers and non-believers), and the teaching/explanation of the Bible. We need all of these in our spiritual diet continually.

The “Prophets” of the Old Testament are inerrant and inspired, and serve as models/examples for preachers in the Church. We are, as part of our calling, preach the commands of God, leaning on the Holy Spirit’s help, to move the people of God to repentance and obedience...and we are to do this without abandoning the giving of the grace of the Gospel or the explanation of the meaning and theology of the text.

It is foolish to believe we can accomplish this in a 15-minute talk filled with anecdotes and stories. It is woefully naive to believe attending the gathering of the Church for one hour a week can adequately fill the God-intended purpose of teachers/preachers in the Church. Does your Church have an evening service, a mid-week Bible study, other small groups that study the Word? Are you a part? These are the means by which God speaks His Word to His people through the power of His Holy Spirit.

We need to be convicted unto repentance and obedience, fed grace unto communion with God in Christ, and trained in the nature, character, ways, and thoughts of God through the explanation of His Word. This cannot happen without giving time to the corporate times in the Word. Commit and get involved. It’s not a matter of not having enough’re reading this, aren’t you? If you’re reading this, you’re probably reading a lot of other stuff online. How many hours of online time are you spending a week compared to gathering with Spirit-filled believers to get into God’s Word together? We fool ourselves by complaining there’s not enough time.

He has given the Law and Prophets, the Gospel and Apostles. We need this more than anything else, and He has purposed that we receive and grow in His Word together.

Let’s get to it.

[1] This book was helpful when I was first learning this principle.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Big Picture Parallels in the Bible

I was thinking about the big picture of the Bible yesterday on my run, specifically about the two revelatory “dark ages” in the history of the biblical story. Between the final events of Joseph’s life and the Exodus is just over four hundred years (Genesis 15:13; Exodus 12:40,41; Acts 7:6; Galatians 3:17). Between Malachi and the apostles’ writing of the New Testament is a similar period of time (depending on when you date Malachi and the earliest writings of the New Testament).

The covenant people of God were delivered through Moses (as servant in God’s house, Hebrews 3:1-6) from Egypt, the house of slavery (Exodus 13:3,14; 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:5; 6:12; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5,10; Judges 6:8; Micah 6:4).

The covenant people of God were delivered through Jesus Christ (as Son in God’s house, Hebrews 3:1-6) from Second Temple Judaism, the house of slavery (John 8:31-36; Galatians 4:1-5:1).

In the allegory of Galatians 4:22-31, Hagar is “is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children” (4:25). Remember that Hagar is Egyptian (Genesis 16:1,3; 21:9; 25:12), a native from the house of slavery.

The Revelation makes the same comparison between earthly Jerusalem and Egypt: “...the great city which mystically is called Sodom [Isaiah 1:10; Jeremiah 23:13; Ezekiel 16:46] and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified” (11:8). This is, in fact, my interpretation of the Revelation: the story of the generation that transitioned from the old covenant to the new covenant, culminating in the current Gospel age (described symbolically in chapters 20-22).[1]

Jacob’s family goes into slavery in Egypt. Parallel to this, Zerubbabel, Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah lead the people back into the land after the Babylonian exile. They build a second temple, one without the Ark of the Covenant or a manifestation of God’s glory at its dedication (it is an exceedingly empty symbol).

Over four centuries of silence occur both in the Hebrews’ time in Egypt and the growth of Second Temple Judaism.

God manifests His presence through His servant Moses and His Son Jesus Christ to bring deliverance.

The revelatory “dark ages” come to an end with Moses’ writing of the Law (the first five books of the Old Testament) and Jesus Christ’s apostles’ writing of the New Testament.

Interesting parallels worth some thought.

[1] I do not deny a second coming of Christ, but don’t believe the New Testament tells us much about it (many of the passages we attribute to the second coming actually describe the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the full establishment of the Gospel/New Covenant Age) – instead, we’re told how to live in Christ on earth while longing to be with Him in heaven. “To deter all men from sin on the one hand, and to give greater comfort to the godly in their adversity on the other, Christ would have us firmly persuaded that a day of judgment lies ahead. For the same reasons He has kept the day’s date a secret so that men may shake off all confidence in themselves and, in ignorance of the hour in which the Lord will come, may be ever on the watch, and ever prepared to say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly. Amen’” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 32.3).