Friday, May 20, 2016

The Way the Wind Blows

“Two priests came round our house tonight:
One young, one old, to offer prayers for the dying,
To serve the final rite.
One to learn, one to teach
Which was the cold wind blows,
Fussing and flapping in priestly black
Like a murder of crows.”
Sting, “All This Time” (from The Soul Ages, ©1991, A&M Records)

I’ve had this song playing in my mind lately, and it’s been a psychical irritant. The place of the album in my life is poignant (it came out in January the year I graduated high school), and I have always deeply appreciated Sting’s song-writing abilities. But these lines rumple me in spirit.

Earlier this week I made the drive to the middle of our incredible (and incredibly large) state to visit someone in a rehabilitation hospital there. It was a long trip (roughly 280 miles one-way), and one of the men I’ve been mentoring for several years was off work, so I asked him to come along.

The Lord has granted me the opportunity to play the role of mentor many times over the years, sometimes even in an official capacity as some of these brothers were pursuing seminary degrees. It’s mostly been a joy to me (though there has been heartbreak), and that’s probably why Sting’s been annoying me with his singing recently. The discipleship of the people of God, those who “learn” and those who “teach,” does not have as its content “which way the cold wind blows.” He is anything but “cold.” Sting makes reference to the Bible’s play on the single word (Hebrew in the O.T., Greek in the N.T.) for “breath,” “wind,” and “Spirit.” He is the Spirit of Whom Jesus speaks in His nighttime encounter with the Pharisee: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:4-8).[1] The Person of the Holy Spirit, Who is as mysterious and invisible as the wind, causes our new life in Christ to become a reality in His continued participation in the creative work of God (this is how He’s introduced to us in the second verse of the Bible). He is not a “cold wind.” He is the very warmth of the true life of God in all those who believe in the resurrected and glorious Son. And this Monday, though we both coincidentally wore Batman t-shirts, we were not quite comparable to “a murder of crows” in “priestly black” (and there are no crows in New Mexico – only ravens). If you don’t know the joyful weight of pouring your time, heart, struggles with sin, experience with a gracious God, and life itself into a fellow believer for their (and your) continued growth, pray earnestly that the warm, living wind Who is the Holy Spirit brings you to this place.[2]

On our way back we were talking of false teachers. My brother mentioned that he had caught a reference I made to one several weeks early in the morning Lord’s Day service at our local church. Without mentioning the preacher’s name, I had pointed to his Gospel-denying, theology-twisting recent proclamation that God had broken His own Law out of love. Horrible. The Song of Moses praises God with these soaring lines: “The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4). The Spirit says this of God’s commitment to a just upholding of His Law: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD” (Proverbs 17:15). It is this unchangeable character of God in righteousness that leads to the sacrifice of His perfectly righteous, holy, and obedient Son in our place. It, not the breaking of His own Law, was the only way “He would be just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Sin had to be punished according to God’s Law. He is a perfectly righteous Judge. He is also Savior. Someone had to pay. The Son, one in will with the Father, fulfilled this role by offering Himself in our place. No Law was broken, no eternally unchanging righteousness compromised – but salvation is accomplished, praise His holy name.

Our conversation then moved to another teacher who, on Christmas Eve last year, had announced to his congregation that the Ten Commandments weren’t commandments at all, but promises. His argument was that they are not “commandments,” since this Hebrew word is not used to describe the Ten. They are the Ten “Words.” From this he argued, via a look at dubious connections between Hebrew words, that they were not commandments but promises. There are several problems here. Context is the greatest.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down these words [הַדְּבָרִים], for in accordance with these words [הַדְּבָרִים] I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’ So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words [דִּבְרֵי] of the covenant, the Ten Commandments [הַדְּבָרִֽים, lit., “words”]…then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers in the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke [וַיְדַבֵּר] to them. Afterward all the sons of Israel came near, and he commanded [וַיְצַוֵּם] them to do everything that the Lord had spoken [דִּבֶּר] to him on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 34:27-31).

You don’t have to know Hebrew to see the three-letter root: דבר. It is a flexible word, translated “word”/“words,” “Commandments,” and “spoke”/“spoken.” I don’t remember exactly how my Hebrew professor in seminary explained it, but I always describe Hebrew words as something like Swiss Army Knives. Words can have a widely varied and large semantic range. This, sadly, opens the door for interpretive malpractice. Sometimes teachers use the original biblical languages as a means of giving the text a new meaning, usually falling into what is called a root fallacy. We don’t discover new or deeper understandings of texts by looking up a word in a Hebrew (or Greek or English) dictionary. That’s not how language works. You don’t get to isolate a word in a sentence, look it up in a dictionary, and choose a definition apart from how the word is used in its context. In this case, the “Ten Words” can be rightly understood as the “Ten Commandments” because they are “the words of the covenant,” that is, commandments that represent the boundaries of the covenant relationship. We see this earlier as Israel meets the LORD at the mountain: “In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant [obedience is part of being in covenant!], then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.’ So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do!’” (Exodus 19:1-8). With the establishing of covenant, God doesn’t give guideposts or mere words or promises – as Lord of the covenant He gives commands, and the people understand this. He commands obedience, and they response with a commitment to obey. The words that will come off of the mountain through the mediator Moses are understood to be commandments. Context tells us this, not a dictionary definition (or a Jewish Christian expert).

Returning to Exodus 34:34, the verb “command” is used in the midst of his presenting the “Ten Words,” or Ten Commandments, to the people. The people didn’t understand the words to be mere “promises.” They are “words” commanded by God.

The same language is used with the generation after the Exodus: “…the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form - only a voice. So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded [צִוָּה] you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments [הַדְּבָרִים]; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. The Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it” (Deuteronomy 4:13).

In case this evidence is unconvincing, I submit evidence from the Son of God Himself, Who, in naming five of the Ten, calls them “commandments” (Matthew 19:17-19; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20).

To be fair, I don’t think what was said about the Ten “Words” was all bad.[3] What was bad was blaming God for this redefinition of the tablets of God’s Law (the preacher claimed the Lord laid this on his heart hours before the sermon was delivered). If this pastor would have taken to the pulpit and said, “here are the blessings in the life of a believer in Jesus Christ when they, by the power of the Holy Spirit, obey God’s Ten Commandments,” the ten points of this preacher’s Christmas Eve sermon would have been a wonderful, God-glorifying feast for the Church. What was bad was teaching his congregation that English translations are all wrong and the truth can only be learned from Jewish Christians with innovative definitions of Hebrew words. While they may provide insight that supports what the text as a whole clearly says, the original languages are not sources for secret knowledge accessible to a special few. Translation teams for our English translations have labored mightily to tell us what the Lord has spoken, and, as the saying goes, “context is king,” not selective and creative word-studies or etymological journeys into the previously unknown.[4] What was bad was minimizing the cover-to-cover demand by God that those who believe in Him and love Him also obey what He has commanded in His all-sufficient and clear Word.

The warm, eternal life-giving wind Who is the Holy Spirit moved through our discussion, even as we drove home through the powerful spring winds of New Mexico. By way of reminder to us all, it’s always important to return to rejoice in His truth after reading/refuting false teaching. So I conclude with the reality that the Ten Words commanded by God begin with a statement of gracious, supernatural, historical salvation for His covenant people: “I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2//Deuteronomy 5:6). This salvation foreshadowed the greater one accomplished by the Father in the new covenant: “He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). And, just like grace preceded the Ten Words commanded by God in the Old Testament, the New Testament also follows gracious salvation with an adjuring to obey the God of salvation.[5]

This upcoming Lord’s Day I hope to speak of the Christian’s graciously-given ability to love God’s Law. Only in Christ, with the penalty of the Law against our lawlessness forgiven, can we sing: “The Law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalm 19:7), “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8), “the Law of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119:72), Your Law is my delight” (Psalm 119:77b; 119:174b), I love Your Law” (Psalm 119:113b; 119:163b), and “Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your Law is truth” (Psalm 119:142). Only in Christ, with the penalty of the Law against our lawlessness forgiven, can we confess with the apostle: “…the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good…the Law is spiritual” (Romans 7:12,14).

 Learn this and teach this. Warmly.

[1] Jesus is alluding to wisdom inspired by that Spirit through Solomon centuries earlier: “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God Who makes all things” (Ecclesiastes 11:4).
[2] Mentorship (a contemporary word for discipleship) is also the fulfillment of the Great Commission – not baptism alone. READ Matthew 28:18-20. Teaching someone to observe all the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ is a life-long process.
[3] #1 – You do not have to live in constant disappointment anymore. #2 – You can be free from rituals and religion and trust in a relationship. #3 – You can trust in a Name that is above every Name. #4 – You can rest. #5 – Your family does not have to fall apart. #6 – You do not have to live in a constant state of anger because you will be motivated by love and not hate. #7 – You do not have to live a life dominated by the guilt, pain and shame associated with sexual sin. #8 – I will provide. #9 – You do not have to pretend. #10 – I will be enough. Found at Pastor Noble's blog. Again, if presented as blessings resulting from obedience to the Commandments, these are rich. Sadly, a day later, while apologizing for parts of this teaching, he addresses those who “still cannot wrap your mind around what I taught and disagree with it.” We can wrap our minds around it, and find that, according to Scripture, his redefinition of the Ten Commandments is wrong.
[4] D.A. Carson calls this “the root fallacy,” which is “the search for hidden meanings bound up with etymologies.” Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), pgs. 28-33.
[5] John 14:15,21; 15:10; 1 John 5:2,3; 2 John 6; Revelation 12:17. True faith leads to obedience (Romans 1:5; 16:26; Acts 6:7; Hebrews 5:9).

Monday, May 9, 2016

The End of the Earth

I had another reminder yesterday of the importance of the church in extreme rural areas. A younger couple recently moved to a nearby ranch, had met one of our congregation’s members at the post office, and had accepted the invitation to Sunday worship. Let me make this less normal: “nearby” is 45 miles. The ranch was down near a border port-of-entry. 45 miles away. There is no town, no other church between us and them. They would have had to travel 30 miles from us to the west and 45 miles from us to the east to find another congregation.

This is my Sunday afternoon passion.

I love Tim Keller, even with his passion for the large city. My denomination’s North American mission organization has made its focus cities on our continent with 1,000,000+ residents. I agree that cities are important (it’s where the people are), but cannot, cannot, cannot forget the nowheres.

“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Lord has graced me with a “remotest part of the earth” in which to serve on my Sunday afternoons, and a congregation I serve full-time in a small city of 10,000 residents 90 miles away which not only allows, but encourages my service elsewhere.

The risen and glorified Christ sings about my beautiful nowhere: “From You comes my praise in the great assembly;
I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.
The afflicted will eat and be satisfied;
Those who seek Him will praise the Lord.
Let your heart live forever!
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations will worship before You.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s
And He rules over the nations”
(Psalm 22:25-28).

One of our men called us to worship yesterday morning with Psalm 98 in the “city church” in which I serve. It was his last Sunday with us – he and his wife had to move to a “big city” in another state for medical services. He read to us:
“O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth” (98:1-4a).

Isaiah shares this witness:
“Sing to the Lord a new song,
Sing His praise from the end of the earth!”
(Isaiah 42:10).
“I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth

“The Lord has bared His holy arm
In the sight of all the nations,
That all the ends of the earth may see
The salvation of our God”

Pastors, deacons, Sunday School teachers, seminary students…got three or four hours free (like on a Sunday afternoon)? I’m willing to wager there’s a nowhere within reach of you who cannot afford a full-time (or even part-time) pastor. But there are souls there. Souls which need the Gospel. Souls who know Jesus and therefore need the latter part of the Great Commission: “…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Small church buildings need to stay open, casting light over towns that are nearly ghost towns and further, 45 miles away and beyond. The Church must gather, even in the beautiful nowhere where God still walks. Can you give that kind of time to a nowhere? “Big city” churches, can you support and encourage such efforts to keep the lights on where very, very few will see them?

Six years ago my “city church” gave one of its vans to a small church in a town on the other side of the state (population 300). The older man who was serving that congregation at the time was an experienced church planter. He knew of my Sunday afternoon work in the nowhere. He looked at me, squinted his eyes, and said, “I used to do what you’re doing – it made me old.” I think of that often. Thought of it - or rather, felt it - yesterday as I drove the 98 miles back for evening service.

But it’s worth it. God has blessed me through that ghost-town congregation more times than I can count over the last nine years. We have baptized new believers and buried saints who have graduated to glory. We have reached out to help this shrinking town (70 residents when I started, 30 now) several times a year. I learned how to preach to 2 to 3 people here (that’s how we started). Souls for whom Jesus died. Souls that need the Word taught and explained and fed to them.

Do you have time? There are nowheres with souls out there. Don’t forget them. Please. When I travel I am sensitive to these little isolated collections of people - especially when there's no church in their midst. They are a mission field as surely as the isolated African village or the North American metropolis. Who will serve them?

A young couple drove 45 miles to worship yesterday afternoon. And, in the middle of nowhere, there were open doors and a welcoming congregation ready to receive them.