Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Drinking Mercy (and Coffee) Instead of Sorrow

“...I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:18-25).

Sometimes we read (and teach) this passage with an emphasis on Paul’s “gain” and “desire to depart and be with Christ.” This is a good and right thing – we need more of a scripturally-informed leaning toward and yearning for Christ’s heaven (Colossians 3:1-4 is a very important passage to me). However, that’s not the whole story.

I got to be part of a 100th birthday for a dear sister in Christ yesterday. She was having a difficult day health-wise, but it was a joy to see her reach – by God’s grace – this landmark. I thought of the difficulties and sorrowful loss her family has experienced in the years I’ve been their pastor, and was reminded of this profound truth proclaimed in the midst of heartbreak:
“This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
It is good that he waits silently
For the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:21-26).

This was Tuesday’s meditation for me.

Today is Wednesday. I got a call this morning telling me that another dear sister in Christ, a 94-year-old prayer warrior of the highest degree, was in the hospital with a possible stroke. I confess: I felt a bit of fear inside. I was thankful to find her sitting up, smiling, eating breakfast, and drinking coffee (that magnificent elixir gifted from heaven to a sod-bound race). It was good to see her like this.

I don’t know what the next hour, day, or month holds, but I told her I hoped we’d be celebrating her 100th in six years. She agreed. I read Psalm 30 with her, prayed, and left. On the drive in to the office another passage from Philippians came to mind, and it wasn’t the one at the top of this post.

“But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need; because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow (Philippians 2:25-27).

It’s interesting that Paul’s “gain” and “desire to depart and be with Christ” didn’t make him emotionless or oddly inhuman about “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The apostle loathed this thing (as I do with all my soul) and considered it the mercy of God that his fellow servant and dear brother was brought back from the brink, so that Paul wouldn’t have to drink a cup of “sorrow upon sorrow.”

I long for the heavenly Home where my Savior and Lord is. A lot. But I hate the process of getting there, and despise the fact that a funeral is always somewhere unseen around the corner. Paul held both of these emotions without contradiction or sin, which strengthens me. I pray for the grace to do the same.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Line in the Sand

Glenn Beck (a Mormon) and George Barna (a pollster) giving a twelve-point list on what the Church wants to hear from the pulpit? And none of the twelve points are the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

There is usually a great gulf fixed between what we think we need to hear, what we want to hear, what we feel would meet our needs, and what the Bible itself tells us we need to preach and to hear.

My theology concerning preaching and what motivates it largely comes from three passages in the Bible:
  • “For thus the LORD spoke to me with mighty power and instructed me not to walk in the way of this people, saying, ‘You are not to say, “It is a conspiracy!” In regard to all that this people call a conspiracy, and you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it. It is the LORD of hosts Whom you should regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread. Then He shall become a sanctuary...bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. And I will wait for the LORD Who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob; I will even look eagerly for Him. Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, Who dwells on Mount Zion. To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isaiah 8:11-14,16-1820).
  • “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
  • “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes...if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believe in Him will not be disappointed.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him Whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!’ faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:1-4,9-15,17).
It concerns me enough that fellow confessors of the biblical Jesus Christ are willing to hear, watch, read, and re-post the political musings of a Mormon, but are we really going to listen to a single word the man says about what folks in our congregations want to hear (regardless of what the pollster and historian who were his guests say)? Am I the only one for whom this is quite a red flag? The only way this seems to work is if politics is your idol; at that point there’s no great line to cross to partner with someone who denies the Trinity, the nature of salvation, and the sufficiency of the Bible alone.

I am blessed to preach behind two sacred desks. One is built in the shape of a cross. The other has the words, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (John 12:21) on its surface (where only the preacher can see it). This is enough for me, no matter what the congregation thinks they want to hear and no matter what I feel like preaching. For twenty-two years I have trusted the Word to give us what we need when we need it. When people have had questions on particular topics, we have gone to the Word in search of those things in private counsel or small-group discussion. But, in the gathering of the saints at the Table and in the Word, we do not steer the ship, and the reality given us in the Word does not change no matter what is happening in the world around us. We need to bend to the Word, not the other way around. We need to follow it to a heavenward focus rather than shaping an earth-bound message. Christ is the center, not any current events. This is what the all-sufficient Word does for the congregation that receives it by faith.

I do not preach expositionally because Jesus or Paul taught that way; I do not believe I have been commanded to preach as they did (or that I am able). But their words are recorded in “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), that is, in the inspired and inerrant New Testament, and rather than using felt needs or current affairs to lead me to various passages in the Book, I am convinced that the Spirit Who gave us this Book will shape us into Christ and fit us for heaven if we follow Him through every passage, without missing a one and without picking and choosing what I think we need. My trust in the Book is not complete and not nearly as deep as it should be, but a liturgical practice that guides me (and the congregation) into a greater faith will, Lord willing, take us further in and further up far more than any other approach.

“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, Who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

The whole idea that we know what we need to hear is bizarre to me (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25; 28:26). I did not know what I needed before I heard the Gospel by faith for the first time; there have been plenty of times daily since that moment that I have thought I knew what I needed and was (and will be) completely wrong.

I need Christ preached from the Word. And so does the Church. And so does the world. Whether any of us know it, feel it, or want to hear it, or not.

“Then he showed me a river of the water of life [John 7:37-39], clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations [Matthew 28:18-20] (Revelation 22:1,2). The Spirit, coming from the Father and Son (see the Trinity?), flowing through the Church's preaching of the Gospel to the nations, is the only thing that will heal them. The only thing.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Christ's Suffering, Our Growth, and the Ordinances

“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship [κοινωνιαν] of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).

I love the ordinances commanded to the Church by its only Lord and High Priest, Jesus Christ. I am passionate about them, and am convinced that by minimizing them for more flashy and entertaining pursuits, we have robbed ourselves of a blessing the Head of the Church Himself has given us for our spiritual benefit.

Today’s Southern Baptists identify the ordinances as one of the marks of a true Church:
  • “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers...observing the two ordinances of Christ” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, VI).
  • “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour [sic], the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming” (BF&M 2000, VII).

While we typically read passages like Philippians 3:10 (“the fellowship of His sufferings”) as a reference to persecution (see also Matthew 20:23; Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:5; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 2:11; 1 Peter 4:13), I believe the ordinances to be a regular and consistent liturgical means by which the Lord brings His Church into conformity with His own “sufferings.” I don’t deny that for the apostle Paul (and countless believers in the past and today) these passages speak of a literal experience of Christian suffering, but given what else Paul says on the subject, I would suggest that we shouldn’t limit his language to these persecutions. Instead, there is a way in which biblical Christian liturgy makes these realities a regular experience of the gathered Church for our spiritual growth and sanctification. Let’s consider the language the apostle Paul uses in other places concerning the ordinances.

Concerning baptism: “ you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:3-13). Baptism is “an act of obedience symbolizing” union with Christ’s suffering, but Paul certainly takes it beyond just symbolic act in his teaching on this ordinance. “...we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death...our old self was crucified with Him...we have died with Christ...” This is strong language connected with the ordinance, and we would do well to take it seriously! So when Paul speaks of “the fellowship of His sufferings” and conformity “to His death” to the Philippian church, it is not necessarily limited to persecution and martyrdom. Paul’s own language to the Romans shows us that the ordinance of baptism brings us into this experience which should produce profound ethical/moral fruit in our lives. Let’s look at the Philippians passage again: Paul counts all things (both his sin and his own personal righteousness) as loss, so that he may have a righteousness “which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (3:9,10). Justification (being proclaimed righteous) by faith in Jesus Christ is followed by a union with Christ which includes “the fellowship of His sufferings” and conformity “to His death” as experienced in the ordinances.

In addition to baptism, Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper as an ordinance which brings us into this “fellowship” and “conformity.”

“Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing [κοινωνια] in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing [κοινωνια] in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16,17). Just as the doctrine of baptism should have spiritual fruit in a believer’s life, so too does the Lord’s Supper have powerful implications for unity in the Church and dedication solely to Christ (read the rest of chapter 10 through the end of chapter 11...and truth be told, probably through the end of chapter 14!).

We need to continually remember Paul’s confession “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). We must remember it so that we “do not nullify the grace of God” (2:21) – a continual temptation for every believer. The ordinances are an instrument of this grace and sanctifying work in our lives.

Early in ministry, a wise deacon (now in Glory) once told me that humans never stay in the middle of a position/opinion/doctrine, but are continually swinging back and forth to extremes. My dear Baptists, I fear that in this day we have gone so far on the ordinances that they are barely there in the life of the Church. May we consider the testimony of the Scriptures and carefully, thoughtfully, and purposefully begin moving the pendulum back to a more faithful view of the ordinances which grants them the central place in Christian liturgy that the Scripture itself gives them. The promised fruit of Scripture concerning the ordinances and what they represent is freedom from sin, service to God’s righteousness, unity, and faithfulness to Christ. Sound like something needed in the Church today? All these things come from union with Christ in His death and resurrection – the very reality the ordinances lead us to walk in together.

For by them we regularly “may know...the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that [we] may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rejoicing in Citizens of a Different City

“I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord. All the good things I have come from You.’ As for those in the land who belong to You, they are the great ones in whom is all my joy. Those who have traded for another god bring many troubles on themselves” (Psalm 16:2-4a, New Life Version).

My youngest daughter has discovered the joy of reading in the last year, and, much to her parents’ joy, seems to enjoy only reading her Bible. She has a little notebook in which she copies passages of Scripture. A few weeks ago she brought me her copy of Psalm 16. That night she read it in family devotion before bedtime. It was the same day as the second debate among those seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for the 2016 presidential race.

Read the excerpt from Psalm 16 again. I didn’t watch the debate. Surveying the reactions and commentaries of fellow believers on social media was far more informative to me – not necessarily concerning the candidates, but the worldview and political theory my fellow believers were proclaiming (whether they intended to or not). A question which first occurred to me four years ago came to mind again, especially in the context of the Psalm of that day: If a candidate thinks most like us in the areas of economy, foreign policy, social issues, and governmental theory, but not in Christology, and we still support that candidate, what does that say about the priority of Christ in our thinking (not to mention our lives)?

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1,2, New American Standard).

“But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Ephesians 4:20-24).

We are not supposed to think like non-believers, even if the non-believers are in our political party and/or share certain political ideals. I have seen many Christians get heavily involved in politics with a good desire to bring a godly influence into that realm, only to be more influenced by the ideals of that domain than they are the Scripture and true Christian doctrine (especially when they spend far more hours in the week dedicated to politics rather than sitting under biblical teaching or studying the Word with others). It would seem that the Old Testament adage is true: holiness is not contagious, but uncleanness certainly is (Haggai 2:11-13).

“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ Says the Lord Almighty. Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1). Does this have application for believers and civil politics?

I freely grant that the New Testament doesn’t explicitly address how believers are to operate in a democratic Republic. However, I would suggest that there are a lot of questions rooted in systematic theology that believers need to have answered from the Scripture before they either operate in the realm of politics or speak their political opinions in public. For just one example: How do you understand the Bible’s doctrine of sin in unbelievers? How is this sin to be dealt with? What is the remedy for it? Can we be united politically to someone who doesn’t believe in the need for divine forgiveness of sin, or someone who bows down before graven images, or someone who seeks a relationship with God through any mediator but the “one mediator...between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5)? Answers to these questions should and will radically (from the root, that is) determine your political language and decision-making. There are many other questions that come to mind, but ultimately they all come back to a trinitarian view of God (and, by extension, a biblical Christology) and how our commitment to that God should determine our politics and political alliances. Can support of a non-Christian candidate logically reconcile with your understanding of Christian theology and biblical doctrine? Believers should be “continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42), for the Spirit works through these. When we do not do this, I am not the least surprised that Christianity becomes more political (in a worldly sense) than biblical.

Further, I worry about our seeking common ground based on the “Judeo-Christian God” or “Judeo-Christian morality.”

I know there is not a “Judeo-Christian God,” for “who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:22,23). From a biblical standpoint, there is only the Christian God. The claims of Christ and the teachings concerning Him in the Bible cannot legitimately be separated from a conception of God and still be Christian or biblical. Anything else is “antichrist.” If there is not a “Judeo-Christian God,” then it follows that there is no true “Judeo-Christian morality” or ethic. Because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, all morality and ethics are seen through what He has accomplished and what He demands (Matthew 28:20). Can a Christian really separate morality and ethics from the claims of Jesus Christ in Bible to be bound with those who reject Jesus Christ and all the words of His apostles (the New Testament – and the Old Testament, since we must read the O.T. through the N.T., 2 Corinthians 3:14-16)?

I fear we want “a all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5) more than we want a leader passionate for and wholly submitted to “the King of the nations” (Jeremiah 10:7). During the 2012 election season, I saw many Christians throw their support behind a non-Christian (Mormons are not Christian because they do not confess the Christ as the Church has historically and biblically confessed Him for two millennia). Can we fellowship in our politics without fellowshipping in our worship? Can a Christian really separate devotion to Christ from the arena of politics so neatly?

Return to the Bible and its Christ. Build a solid foundation of biblical Christian theology and ethics, and from there evaluate the candidates. Build no bridges with those who take the name of Christ upon themselves in vanity, but cling to the Christ with all you are and in all you do. If he or she does not confess the Christ of the Bible, then I cannot cast my vote in that direction. Preach the biblical Christ and His Gospel to yourself and others every day. Sit with other believers under biblical teaching as often as possible (especially with others not as on-fire for politics and current events as you are – you need that balance). And think, think for the glory of God in Christ, my beloved. Think clearly and biblically on these things.

“I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord. All the good things I have come from You.’ As for those in the land who belong to You, they are the great ones in whom is all my joy. Those who have traded for another god bring many troubles on themselves” (Psalm 16:2-4a, New Life Version).

May our joy be like that of the Psalmist, found in others in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. All others are objects of evangelism and prayer - not hope, joy, or even political support.
Push for the summit in the Mount Taylor 50K (2014).
Scripture tells believers to be ever-climbing to heaven
in this life in all we do (Philippians 3:13-31; Colossians 3:1-4;
Hebrews 11:13-16).

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Mediator's Grace in Our Darkness

“‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan [a Hebrew title meaning, “adversary”] has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.’ But he said to Him, ‘Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!’ And He said, "I say to you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me’” (Luke 22:31-34).

The absolute sovereignty of God the Son, especially in the day of His suffering, is something we should not take for granted or overlook in the great drama of the narrative. Though Jesus tells “the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders” that “hour and the power of darkness” (22:53) belongs to them, He is still in total mastery of the moment. He has not laid that lordship down. In fact, as He is at the right hand of the Father, He has been given “all heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). I need this reality as both my foundation and covering every day. So do you.

It’s not this sovereignty, though, that has astounded me afresh this week. I’ve been blessed and – yes – amazed at the grace that comes through the mediation of the great High Priest Jesus Christ.

The adversary, as he did with Job and does with innumerable saints, has demanded the right to test Peter’s faith. This is what he exists to do to the glory of God. “...the Satan’s job, as God’s submissive opposition, is to search men and women to see if there is anyone who is genuinely godly and pious...Satan has a ministry; it is the ministry of opposition, the ministry of insisting that the genuineness of the believer be tested and proved genuine. It is a hostile and malicious ministry, but a necessary ministry for the glory of God...the apostles are to be sifted by Satan, to see if their faith is genuine. And their faith will prove genuine, not least because God the Son prays to God the Father for Peter, and then Peter becomes the instrument to strengthen the faith of the others.”[1]

Peter’s betrayal, the arrest, and the adversary’s sifting of the Lord’s disciples, are all serving the Triune God to His ultimate glory. In every moment.

I taught from this “sifting” passage last month during a memorial service for a death I knew would be a trial to many believers, "so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes" (2 Corinthians 2:11). We need to be aware of what is happening to us and through us in the darkness. Scripture alone reveals this to us.

The adversary must still ask for permission from the Lord to test believers. Just as we see with Job, the Lord defines the exact parameters for the sifting operation of the adversary. Jesus doesn’t tell Peter that the adversary’s request has been denied. The “one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5) has prayed that Peter’s “faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” He doesn’t pray for Peter’s comfort, ease, health, wealth, or anything Peter himself might request. He prays for that which is eternally and salvifically important – Peter’s persistent faith. Peter benefits from this, of course (and still is, and always will), but the goal is the Church: “...strengthen your brothers.” It’s about Jesus loving His Church. He intercedes for the saints to the benefit of the saints not for the individual but for the Body.

Peter betrays Jesus three times, just as Jesus foretold (22:54-60). What happens at the end of this narrative is what I want us to see.

There are only two times in Luke-Acts where “the word of the Lord” is “remembered.” At both times Peter is the one remembering, and the difference between the two circumstances is the beautiful testimony to the glory of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

After Peter denies the Lord three times, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had told him, ‘Before a rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly” (22:61,62). The Lord’s word is verified, and Peter is utterly broken. It is “the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is not comfortable, fun, or exalting (by prideful or worldly standards). But this is the “will of God” achieved through the mediation of the Son. Remembering the Word of Christ in the midst of sin results here in brokenness and repentance which leads to (because of the mediatiorial prayer of the Son) salvation by unwavering faith. This is the first time “the word of the Lord” is “remembered” by Peter in Luke-Acts. It’s a great statement of grace. After all, Jesus taught the disciples, “he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (12:9). The only thing that can save Peter is grace, and that is abundant through Jesus Christ. Soli gratia.

As marvelous as that event of “remembering...the word of the Lord” is, the second is even greater. Peter has returned to Jerusalem after seeing God bring salvation to Cornelius’ house through the preaching of Christ. This is a new thing; the new covenant Church began out of Jerusalem among the Jewish people. Though Jesus hinted and clearly proclaimed numerous times that it would overflow these ethnic boundaries unto the ends of the earth, it’s still a shock to the Jewish Christians. So Peter addresses the Church in Jerusalem: “...Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, ‘...I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?”’” (Acts 11:4,16,17).

The second time Peter “remembered the word of the Lord” it resulted in this: “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life’” (11:18).

God is glorified, and the Kingdom of God begins its unstoppable spread through the world and all generations.[2]

Behold the grace of God: the first time Peter remembers the word of the Lord, it brings him to bitter tears; the second time Peter remembers the word of the Lord, it is as he is being used to bring salvation to the nations.

Jesus is still praying for His people:
  • “Christ Jesus is He Who died, yes, rather Who was raised, Who is at the right hand of God, Who also intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34).[3]
  • “...Jesus...because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 8:24-26).

It is the same prayer. We are sifted in this world to show our faith to be true. Peter, who learned this lesson recorded for this long age in the pages of holy Writ, teaches this principle to us in his first letter: “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6,7).

We are sifted and refined through the constant saving prayer of the heavenly High Priest, Who uses even the wicked adversary for our salvation and God’s ultimate glory. Also through His Word, we do not stand alone or for ourselves. As our faith is hardened into the unwavering might of the triumphant saint, we strengthen others, as well. By the Father’s grace through the mediation of the Son, the Church grows not just in spite of the adversary’s work, but instrumentally through it.

God is great, and His grace is amazing.
Rembrandt (1606-1669), The Denial of Saint Peter (1660)

[1] Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 42,45,55.
[2] When we read the Kingdom parables of Jesus (and their roots in passages like Ezekiel 31:6; Daniel 4:21), this is the message: it starts small but spreads throughout the world.
[3] I was concerned with the “where” of the Holy Spirit in my last post. We should give attention, as well, to the “where” of the Son in our thinking, praying, singing, and theology. Without Him at the right hand of the Father, His continuing work as High Priest and Mediator is ignored. This is a serious problem, for it is from there that we “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Music and the "Where" of the Holy Spirit

“Holy Spirit, You are welcome here. Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere.”
- from the song, “Holy Spirit,” by Bryan & Katie Torwalt, © 2011 Capitol CMG Genesis (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), Jesus Culture Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing)

God the Holy Spirit, one of the three Persons of the one true God, is not said to dwell in a “place” or “atmosphere.” The one passage I can find which is closest to the text of the Torwalt’s song is Acts 4:31. The Church has just prayed, “grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus” (4:29,30). In response to this request, “the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.” The “place” (nor the “atmosphere”) is not filled with the Holy Spirit, but Peter and John’s “own” (4:23), the people of the Church who have just “lifted their voices to God with one accord.”

The same thing happened on the day of Pentecost: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4). They were “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (2:11). The “place” where the Church was gathered was affected, but it is the people who were filled with the Holy Spirit. And the result is not merely an emotional rush or mystical experience for its own sake, but the proclamation of God’s saving work in Christ to the lost.

I’m not making note of this merely to criticize a very popular contemporary song, but to remind us all that the Bible has specific things to say about where the Persons of the Trinity manifest Themselves and work. I have personally tried to pay attention to this in my Bible reading, and have purposefully tried to reflect biblical language in my prayers, thinking, teaching, and preaching about God Himself.

Again, if you’re a fan of the song “Holy Spirit,” I’m not trying to be mean. But we are called to “love the Lord” our “God with all” our “mind” (Matthew 22:37//Mark 12:30//Luke 10:27). That’s not a sentiment or pleasant idea, but a command. It’s part of what the Lord Jesus Christ called “the great and foremost command” (Matthew 22:38), and, along with Leviticus 19:18, “there is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). It seems, therefore, that we should strive for passionate accuracy according to the Scriptures when we think of God, pray to God, and – yes – sing of God.

In the new covenant, if there is any sanctity (holiness) of a place (which I don’t see in the New Testament), it is because it is populated with believers in Jesus Christ, who are filled with the Holy Spirit by virtue of the promise of the Gospel. The Spirit doesn’t inhabit a place. He indwells a people.

The Lord Jesus spoke of “the Spirit, Whom those who believed in Him were to receive” (John 7:39).

For further clarification, let me add: He does not fill a place, but a people, and He does not do so in response to a song, but is sent by the Father and Son to those who believe in the Son. The result is singing, no doubt (Ephesians 5:19), but the singing does not bring Him to fill.

I’ve led worship. Sometimes everything comes together, and it can be a very stimulating and emotionally-charged time. Sometimes not. What I fear is that we can fall into a non-Gospel mentality, lifting up the effectiveness of the music/worship team/atmosphere above the gracious gift of the Spirit given by Father and Son based solely on Jesus’ cross and nothing we have done. Do you see the difference? What if you come away from a service feeling nothing? Did the stage team fail to bring the Spirit? Is there something wrong with you that the Spirit didn’t come? The Bible says we only deserve the wrath of God, not His glory or presence. The Son, though, took that wrath upon Himself on the cross, and as a result of believing that message of the Gospel (not the result of experiencing music), the Father sends the Spirit because of the intercessory request of the Son from heaven. The Holy Spirit indwells sinners despite their efforts, not because of them. And, as a result, we sing of “the gospel of the glory of Christ, Who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

God the Holy Spirit indwells the people who are the Church. “...through [Christ Jesus] we...have our access in one Spirit to the Father,” and “are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18,22). “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? ...the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16,17). “ you not know that your [plural] body [singular] is a temple [singular] of the Holy Spirit Who is in you [plural], Whom you [plural] have from God, and that you [plural] are not your own? For you [plural] have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your [plural] body [singular] (1 Corinthians 6:19,20). “ also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). It’s not the “place” or “atmosphere.” It’s you (plural) in Christ.

This is a precious, glorious, awe-inspiring truth that does not require a musically-based experience to be a reality. While there is nothing wrong with a Christian music experience (I love good music of all styles), remember that it is the fruit, not the root, of the loving Father, gracious Son, and communing Holy Spirit.

While offering this loving reminder of the Scripture’s witness, let me add: the Son is at the right hand of the Father in heaven since His ascension, ruling over “heaven” with “all authority” (Matthew 28:18). He is also continually interceding from that place for believers in Him (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). He is, from that place, to be our focus while we are here on earth: “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). I wonder if, instead of invoking the presence of God the Trinity in our gatherings, we would be better served to beg Him to lift us up to where He is, “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). Holiness. Innocence. Purity. Separation from sin. The exaltation of Christ. These are things we desperately need, and they are found where He is. So maybe we should be called to worship yearning for that place, lifted up to it by the sent-from-heaven Spirit Who dwells in us, Who seals us in the Son Who is at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

God showed up in a place at the dedication of Solomon's Temple (2 Chronicles 5:14; 7:2) in the old covenant. But we are part of a new covenant whose prized adjective is "better" (Hebrews 7:19,22; 8:6; 10:34; 11:16,40; 12:24). God drawing us to a heavenly place is as much better than God dwelling in an earthly place as the new covenant in Christ is better than the old covenant.

“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus...for our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; Who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:14,20,21).

Can you feel Paul’s yearning, his longing in these words?

Father, thank You for sending the Holy Spirit as the matchless Gift. Son of God, all glory to You for earning the Gift of the Holy Spirit for a people who could not possibly ever merit such a precious Presence. Holy Spirit, we treasure Your indwelling the Church of Christ-believers, and ask that You continually bind us together in Christ, lifting us up higher day by day to our longing and desire: the heaven of the Father and Son, the place where we are welcome solely by the merit of Christ. Holy Trinity, mighty and gracious God, we are in awe of this all-consuming reality, witnessed in the promise of Your all-sufficient and flawless Word. And so, anchored to this dirt but longing for eternal heaven, we proclaim, pray, and sing with all our art the marvels of Who You are and what You have done. You alone are worthy.