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Double Jeopardy

We’re often told that Christians shouldn’t beat themselves up for their sins and yet so many do it. Maybe that’s because the advice has been understated. Maybe we should go one step further to say that Christians mustn’t beat themselves up for their sins.

I’m reading Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life for the umpteenth time. This quote reminded me today why this book is a classic:

What then of our attitude to Satan? This is important, for he accuses us not only before God but in our own conscience also. “You have sinned, and you keep on sinning. You are weak, and God can have nothing more to do with you.” This is his argument. And our temptation is to look within and in self-defense to try to find in ourselves, in our feelings or our behavior, some ground for believing that Satan is wrong. Alternatively we are tempted to admit our helplessness and, going to the other extreme, to yield to depression and despair. Thus, accusation becomes one of the greatest and most effective of Satan’s weapons. He points to our sins and seeks to charge us with them before God; and if we accept his accusations, we go down immediately.

Now the reason why we so readily accept his accusations is that we are still hoping to have some righteousness of our own. The ground of our expectation is wrong. Satan has succeeded in making us look in the wrong direction.

Our salvation lies in looking away to the Lord Jesus and in seeing that the blood of the Lamb has met the whole situation created by our sins and has answered it. That is the sure foundation on which we stand. Never should we try to answer Satan with our good conduct but always with the blood.

Strange Fire

The religious group that I came up in was built on the notion that God gave the New Testament to humanity as a blueprint for the way he wanted them to live and worship him. We believed that in the letters of Paul God had prescribed exactly how he wanted collective worship to be performed and that any deviation from that prescription would incur divine judgment.

For those of you who’ve always wondered, that’s why Churches of Christ “don’t have music” – the New Testament prescribes singing and so “playing” is forbidden.

To illustrate the gravity of any sort of innovation, we’d point to the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3. These two sons of Aaron offered “strange fire” before God which he had not authorized. In response to their sacrilege, fire flared up from the presence of the LORD and killed them. God required that anyone who came near him treat him as holy.

God hasn’t changed. We mustn’t despise him in any way. Worship has changed, though. When asked by the Samaritan woman about the proper location to worship God, Jesus divulged a secret:

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24)

The redemptive work of Christ would transition worship from physical rituals and sacrifices to spiritual practices and offerings (Spirit). He would reveal the reality (truth) represented by the temple and priesthood which had been shadows cast on a wall awaiting the full light of Christ’s presence.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced exclusion from the temple service in retribution for their “blasphemous” proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. The author of that letter wrote to assure them that they would suffer no loss whatsoever since worship under the superior priesthood of Christ could never be withheld from anyone. Why not? Because we worship “outside the camp” in the wilds of our daily lives and not within sacred spaces or under the auspices of any human authority. Consider the glory of vulgar worship that pleases God:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.”

 So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?”

 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 12:28-13:16 emphasis mine NAW)

This section is bookended with the idea of pleasing worship to God. Everything in the middle describes that pleasing worship. God has not changed since the days of Nadab and Abihu. He’s a consuming fire today just like he was then. On the day Christ fulfilled our obligations to God, the curtain of the temple ripped from top to bottom. The divine presence has been released, imposing holiness on every aspect of human existence.

Now, we worship when we mow our brother’s yard, take our sister a meal, or pray for a brother in prison. We encounter the transcendent and pure when we have sex with our spouse. We pay homage to God when we follow our leaders into the abandonment of material gain and goods because of faith in his provision. Consuming a ceremonial meal does nothing for our hearts because grace keeps us ever partaking and always filled. Instead of making an animal pay for our devotion to God, we offer the more costly gifts of unashamed confession of his name and sacrificial service and giving.

In light of that description of worship, the rituals and ceremonies which the church offers smell like strange fire.

We don’t gather weekly to worship. The early church didn’t model their meetings on the worship at the temple but on the gatherings at synagogue. God never called upon Israel to gather every Sabbath to worship him. He gave no direction whatsoever regarding the procedure or structure of synagogue service. Jews which had been scattered after the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE, spontaneously began coming together (the literal meaning of the word “synagogue”) for mutual encouragement and learning.

Jesus never told his people when, how, or why to meet. He made them a called out people of the resurrection and disbursed them among a hostile world. Having risen out of Judaism, they knew that meeting once a week for mutual encouragement and learning was critical to the maintenance of their distinct identity and spiritual vigor. In structure and procedure, early church gatherings were almost identical to synagogue service.

Here’s the kicker, just as synagogue grew out of necessity and was shaped by human thinking, so church gatherings, governance, and their liturgy have no connection with divine mandate. God gave the gift of wisdom to Paul and the other apostles who ministered to their generation, but they appointed elders in every church because every synagogue was presided over by elders, not because Jesus told them that churches should be elder led. Paul prohibited women from ministering in the gatherings of some of the churches, but women couldn’t even attend synagogue.

If we’re going to regard Paul, then we’ll need to respect his declaration that we no longer serve God under a covenant based on written rules but one which expresses God’s purposes in Christ. When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, he didn’t specify how often they were to eat it. He only required that as often as they did partake that they remember him. Communion is for us. Through that remembrance, we come back to the wellspring of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul spoke of divine discipline carried out on those who ate unworthily, but the sacrilegious actions had nothing to do with mishandling emblems; it consisted of mistreating the people of God.

We meet to encourage one another – that is the spirit of Paul’s letters. When we attempt to strain out every doctrinal gnat of church procedure, we always end up swallowing the camel of dead legalism.

Because we meet for mutual encouragement, we need to stop asking, “What did the early church do?” or even, “What does the Bible say about how we should meet?” and start asking, “What will encourage everyone to go out into the world and really worship?”

 

 

 

A Faith that Works – Chapter 2 Excerpt

A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.

I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”

Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?

Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.

Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)

● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.

Rods Wielded by Men

Just yesterday, I presented a message on the end of Luke 18 where Jesus heals a blind man along the road just outside of Jericho. The man had heard the commotion of Jesus’ entourage and asked as to the reason for the uproar. Some at the front of the procession inform him that it’s because Jesus of Nazareth was passing that way. In response, he begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Israeli_blue_Star_of_David

What was it that made this beggar associate Jesus with David?

Jewish people in the first century were awaiting the coming of a great king that would be the true successor to David according to a promise made in 2 Samuel 7:12-16:

When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. – 2 Samuel 7:12-16

As we continue through the narrative, it would be easy to conclude that Solomon and his gilded reign were the fulfillment of this promise, but the Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t see it that way mostly because they were no longer a sovereign kingdom ruled by a Davidic monarch. What about that whole, “establish forever” thing?

Christians believe that the blind man in Luke 18 was correct about Jesus’ identity. Let’s consider each of the traits of the Son of David from this promise in an attempt to see what he saw:

  • He would be “raised up” after the death of David.

According to 1 Kings 1:43-48, David himself made Solomon king on his throne while David was still alive. The successive descendants of David obviously came to power after David’s death, but none of them could be said to have been “raised up,” since they all started at the top.

Isaiah predicted that Messiah would grow up before God like a shoot out of dry ground (Is. 53:2).

According to the gospels, Jesus rose from and earthy existence in a blue collar backwater to divinely endorsed rabbi. Then, he rose from corpse to king.

  • He will be David’s physical descendant.

Solomon and all the others including Jesus met this criteria. This part of the promised coupled with the previous part begs the question, “From David’s vantage point, why would his physical descendant need to be raised up?” It would need to happen after the chain of earthly succession had been broken.

The Son of David must be a physical descendant born after Israel’s defeat and captivity.

  • I will establish his kingdom forever.

We might understand this to mean that the one to come would always have descendants on his throne, but wouldn’t that be superfluous? With Solomon excluded as the fulfillment, why would David care which as yet unborn descendant sat on his throne or to which other random descendant it was passed next?

The one to come will not have to relinquish the kingdom because he will never die. His throne will be established because he won’t ever have to vacate it.

solomonsTemple

  • He is the one to build a house for my name.

Yes, Solomon built the temple, but we’ve already excluded him as the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. If the promised descendant isn’t Solomon, then the house to be built isn’t the temple.

Jesus told his disciples, “I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) We think of church as a building, so Jesus’ words don’t sound strange to us, but the word for “church” literally means, ” a called out group of people.” Jesus intentionally wove two images together to express the sort of house he came to build for God. In the context of Matthew 16, Jesus told Peter that he would be the first stone in an edifice made up of called out people.

Peter perpetuated the imagery he received from Christ as he wrote to those who like him had been installed in God’s house,

As you come to him, the living Stone —rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 2:4-5

  • The relationship between the one to come and God will be son to father – that is, one of loving discipline and unconditional love.

This one always struck a sour note with me. “When he does wrong”? Has Jesus done wrong? Does he need discipline for his own affronts to God or offenses against people?

Medical-Aspects-of-the-Crucifixion-of-Jesus-Christ-Part-III-w1

It struck me (no pun intended) today that this promise speaks to the union we have with Christ. At his passion, he was literally struck with “a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands.” We know that wasn’t because of wrongs he himself had done, but wrongs for which he took the blame. Christ has so committed himself to his own people that their sins have become his wrongs. But, this fatherly chastisement didn’t end with the cross.

When Jesus appears to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Rd., he asked, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). The author of the letter to the Hebrews encourages them to face persecution because through the hands of men God disciplines them like a father (Hebrews 12:7-11).

In Christ, the promises to David convey to us. We are the sons of David. We have come into God’s kingdom not as subjects, but as sons – co regents and co heirs with Christ. In our enduring hardships, God continues to fulfill his promise to train his son, the son of David. Persecution is as much our birthright as is a seat at God’s table or our future possession of all creation. Unlike Christ at his passion, we never suffer alone because he continues to be persecuted with his church. Why must we suffer persecution? Because we continue to do wrong. We’ll never be condemned for those wrongs, but we must learn to desist from them.

Peter describes the blessed fruit of suffering with Christ in these words,

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. – 1 Peter 4:1-2

God’s promise through Samuel can only be fulfilled through one person who has ever lived. Because of what he suffered, he can include all people in that promise since his suffering was for their wrongs. In Christ, we are sons of God and sons of David. Our suffering on his behalf certifies our claim on the throne.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. -Romans 8:17

Stand Up for Jesus?

I’m in an online group that’s reading chronologically through the Bible in a year. In today’s reading from 1 Samuel, Israel having suffered a defeat at the hands of their nemesis, the Philistines, brings in the big guns by sending for the ark of God to go before them into battle.

Rather than giving them the edge they hoped for, the ark itself got taken by the Philistines as spoils of war. To add insult to injury, they place it in the temple of Dagon, their god.

The next morning, the Philistines find Dagon face down in front of the ark. The next day, the same thing except this time Dagon’s and head were broken off. Dagon isn’t the only one to suffer from the presence of the ark. We’re told that the Lord’s hand was heavy on Philistines until they sent it back to Israel.

I’m also reading another book called Grace and Personality by John Oman. In discussing the order of the first three requests of the the Lord’s Prayer (God’s name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come, and for his will to be done), he has this to say,

How often is that order reversed! Let us do Thy will, that Thy Kingdom may be gradually brought in, and, in the end, every heart be inspired by the true reverence! The result is striving and crying, with the perpetual menace of defeat and the increasing shadow of despair. But the servant of the Lord should not strive, nor be, after that fashion, morally strenuous. An essentially apocalyptic hope, a dependence, not on man who runs, but on God who gives the victory, dominates this prayer as it does all our Lord’s teaching; and the ground of it lies in beginning with our relation to God, and, only through it, passing to man’s achievement. The order is first reverence, then surrender, then obedience, yet always one and indivisible, even when successive in their manifestation.

We don’t need to defend God. We need to worship him and surrender personally to his will. Efforts to “defend family values” undermine the faith of the gospel. Conceptually, they represent a god no more powerful than the one for whom the jihadis riot.

By Faith Alone

What drives you? Are you working for the weekend (like everybody)? Do you run from fears of failure or inadequacy? Does social censure silence you? Are you paralyzed by worry? Does a need to please pull your strings? If you answered yes to any of these, then you are a sinner. In Romans 14:23, Paul declares that whatever is not of faith is sin. Now, you might say, “Wow, that’s a pretty stringent standard.” I’d agree. And yet, it’s not just a standard but a living reality with a definite experience.

I look at Paul’s indictment of most of my default motivation as stringent because I’m mired in a view of Christianity which just peers over the top of the hedonistic flood of our world. I am accustomed to the religiosity and moralism that masquerade as faith in Christ. The false religion that I’ve always taken for granted has given me ample excuses for my rejection of Christ. I’ve not seen any inconsistency in flailing about while elbow deep in “ministry.” I have been much like Peter, Christ’s most enthusiastic sycophant. But how did Peter deny his Lord or fall beneath the waves? Faithlessness will always produce unfaithfulness. The drive to survive will drown us every time.

Though Paul’s standard seems to border on impossible to the American Christian mind, he simply was describing a spiritual truth which could never be otherwise. Faith (implicit trust and loyalty) is the one thing that God requires of us. Through faith our ancient aspiration to supplant our creator reverses and creation begins to renew. In the garden, our native state was faith and to it there was but one alternative. Now, the alternatives have proliferated beyond number and there is but one place to find faith, at the foot of Christ’s cross. There the Son of Man (“adam” in Hebrew) rejected all other options and hung his fate on his God. Having been vindicated, he requires all who are his to accept his brand of faith.

God deserves our implicit trust but he doesn’t require it only for his satisfaction. Galatians 5:6 declares that the only thing that matters is faith working through love. Love is the goal and faith is the means. The eternal Godhead bound by self-giving love has poured out that love upon us inviting us into their fellowship. But we can’t give self without faith. Fear and worry, the antitheses of faith, pull all of my attention onto my own well being. Within that tunnel, the best I can do is damage control. I can feign love if it will advance my situation or forestall negative consequences. Without faith, I succumb to this world’s counterfeit for love, lust. As St. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

I want to ask you as I’ve been asking myself, can you abandon fear and worry? Can you abandon yourself to God’s faithfulness? Can we release back to Satan any version of Christianity that would excuse faithlessness and compensate with outward conformity? Can we confess that we’ve been no better than unbelievers as we’ve lobbied and campaigned against certain behaviors all in response to a fear mongering political machine? What if we did our best at work out of worship to our God rather than aspiration or intimidation? What if we loved our family rather than appeased them? We can. We must. It is the essence of our profession, not some state of super sainthood. To enter the experience of God’s kingdom under Christ, we must repent.  That is, we must turn away from our problem solving and pleasure seeking to hang our fate (both immediate and ultimate) on the faithfulness of our Abba Father. Go to the cross and once again be saved from this present evil age by the faith of Christ.