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?”

 

 

 

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

Pusher

I just came back from a meeting with my daughter and two of her friends.  They attend a charter school in the area.  I’ve been challenging and equipping them to reach their fellow students with the gospel.  Today they kind of pushed back and told me that their classmates are particularly hostile to people attempting “push their religion” on them.  Vocabulary means everything.  The phrase their friends use reveals a lot about their mindset.  They see Christianity or seemingly any faith system as something which can be thrust upon them.  That’s too bad.  As a follower of Christ I have no desire to make another person accept him.  In fact Jesus seems to have made it hard for people to follow him.  He doesn’t want the unwilling.  So, an authentic relationship with the risen Son of God by definition cannot be pushed on another person.

However, I am driven to do all I can to help as many people as possible come under the kingdom reign of Christ.  What drives me is the inner joy that I have received.  I don’t want to push my religion; I only want to share my joy.  I don’t believe people will suffer for eternity in hell so I have no need to issue a “turn or burn” ultimatum.  I just want to see people be saved, not from eternal damnation but from the brokenness plaguing them in this mortal coil.  Yes, I believe I have received eternal life but the word “eternal” is a qualitative as well as a quantitative modifier.  I’ve received a different way of living that will also never end.  Isn’t that worth sharing with everyone?

Lay Up for Yourselves!

dollar4thepoorThe apostle Paul said that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Perhaps you consider that statement to be naive.  I once saw a 20/20 special where John Stossel convincingly made the case that greed drives innovation and, of all things, generosity.  So, what’s your attitude toward money?  I’d like to share a couple of vignettes from the last two days on this topic.  Feel free to comment on them.

First, I know a guy who started coming to services a while back.  When he arrived here he had lost nearly everything including his family.  After coming to faith in Christ and finding some redemption in his way of life, the breach began to be healed.  Once his immediate relational pain began to subside, we saw him less until he completely dropped out of contact.

Then, about a month ago he called out of the blue saying he wanted to get right with God and by the way he also wanted a loan of $100.  I’m not a big fan of being used so I came down on him pretty hard for abusing our relationship this way.  He assured me that he was genuine and would pay me back that coming Friday.  Seeing a great opportunity to provide him some accountability, I took him up on his promise and loaned him the money.  He’s avoided me since then.

I hit him up for the money day before yesterday.  Here is the transcript of our conversation via text:

Me – “When do you want to get me the $100?”

Him – “Can u wait 1 more week  ive got everything tied up in this house  its a fixer uper  its in rough shape”

Me – “I don’t need the money.  The point is your word.  That’s what I’m concerned about.  What does God want YOU to do?”

Him – “K he wants me 2 get a home 4 my family i hope im srry she has a week 2 get out so im rushing”

Me – “How convenient!  Character is the most valuable thing a person can have.  So, you are very poor, my friend.  Keep the money.”

Him – “No i will get it 2 u”

Me – “Not about the money.  You can’t make up what you’ve lost.  You’ve broken your word and my trust.”

Him – no response

I showed this to my wife.  She asked, “Why are you being so hard on this poor guy?”  Yes, I was harsh.  Sometimes we need to be.  My friend, and I do love him dearly, has a problem.  It’s going to continue to erode his life.  I hate this aspect of his character for that reason.  I want him to see it and be free of it.  That won’t happen unless I am very direct with him.  $100 would not have kept him out of his house.  He has the money but that $100 is more important in his perception than his character or our relationship.  Very sad.

Now to vignette 2: Yesterday, my younger kids and I were having an adventure at the creek/drainage ditch by our house.  As my 7-year-old daughter and I were hanging out by the “waterfall,” I saw a tattered dollar bill lying on the ground.  I picked it up and offered it to her.  She thought for a minute and then said, “No…that’s okay.  Just put it in the ‘poor box’ at church.”

Of the two, which do you think the richer?

Gallery

What Works

One of the elders of our church used to work for Social Security.  The other day he told me about how Social Security absorbed the administration of state-run disability benefits.  To streamline the process, they sought to automate the system through the use of computers.  An outside vendor was brought in to pitch a system which could handle the massive load.  The only problem was that the vendor didn’t actually have the technology they sold.  The demo unit they brought to their presentations was nothing but a metal box equipped with a very impressing array of buttons and flashing lights.  The vendor believed that if they could just get the money from Social Security first, they would be able to produce the promised equipment.  The decision makers at Social Security had little knowledge of computer systems but didn’t want to admit this fact so they went with the vendor.  This interplay between pride and deception brings to mind the old fable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Except in this case more was at stake than a leader’s public image.  Millions of dollars of taxpayer money was lost through the debacle.

This story makes me think of the various worldviews that exist.  So many promise much but deliver little.  When people decide what to believe about reality (and it is a decision), perhaps they should consider a worldview that has proven effective.  Check out these observations made about Christianity by an economist raised in an atheist state.

I’m not saying we should choose a belief system simply because it works.  I’m saying that if it works when nothing else does, perhaps a greater Mind was indeed behind its inception.

Starbucks Appreciation Day

I cannot endorse homosexual marriage.  Sometimes I wish I could.  I don’t want to come across as bigoted or intolerant.  I don’t want to erect unnecessary hurdles to people coming to faith in Christ.  I don’t believe that anyone woke up one morning and thought, “I think I’ll be sexually attracted to someone of the same gender today.” That being said, I cannot endorse homosexual marriage because the Bible universally and unequivocally denounces homosexual activity.

For me, the choice is to either denounce homosexuality as one sin among many or deny my faith in the message of the Bible.  I will not choose that latter.  So does that make me a Pharisee or a bigot?  I’m sure there are many who would say, “Yes.”  Because they say it does not make it so no matter how many say it or how loud they say it.  No one’s words can change the truth of who I am or what I believe.  For that reason, I give anyone full permission to disagree with me or to say whatever they like about me.  I would appreciate the courtesy to be allowed to share my convictions, though.

By now, everyone as heard about Dan Cathy’s comments and their repercussions.  I think, though, that most people are missing the lesson to be learned here.  The main issue which the last two weeks have brought to the fore is free speech, or for that matter, free thought.  Mr. Cathy is a private individual who can believe and say whatever he would like to say.  He can spend his money or his company’s money in ways that he deems are worthwhile.  Should his stance be incorrect, those who oppose him have nothing to fear.

I believe in free speech for everyone.  When opinions are stifled no matter how egregious they may seem to our sensibilities, everyone loses.  When we muzzle one person or fail to tolerate dissenting opinions, we narrow our vision as a society and eventually become blind.

I didn’t go to Chick fil A yesterday.  I don’t like crowds and don’t prefer their food.  I do however like Starbuck’s coffee.  So I’ll be there tomorrow morning supporting their CEO’s right to his opinion and my caffeine addiction.

I’ll close with this landmark quote from Martin Luther which I believe applies to the current debate:

Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.

On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.

My Two Masters Part One

I’ll admit it: The movie, “Karate Kid” has to some degree defined me as a person.  I’m not talking about the nepotistically-produced, pathetic excuse for a remake.  I mean the gloriously cheesy, deliciously predictable original.  I grew up without a father and really without a consistent father figure.  As a modern individualist, my rational mind never allowed me to acknowledge my need for a mentor but the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi compelled my hungry heart.  Ironically, the movie came out during one of the two summers I spent with my father.  We are both fans of the martial arts.  We went together.  Sitting next to a man who had never been there watching a man who didn’t exist, I found a mentor.

I got into Tae Kwon Do.  Martial arts helped me in many ways.  However I hung up my dobok three years later when I discovered a greater mentor – Jesus.  After twenty five years of training under the Master, I’m still blown away by all he has to teach.  Looking back, I’m surprised to discover that Jesus and Mr. Miyagi teach similar lessons and employ similar methods.  Over the next few posts I’ll be sharing a few.  The first is:

“Avoid the middle of the road.”

On the day of his first lesson, Mr. Miyagi asked Daniel, “Are you ready?”  Daniel responded, “I guess so.”  The master seized this teachable moment by explaining that a man who walks on either side of a road is safe while the one who walks in the middle will be “Squish!  Just like grape.”  Mr. Miyagi admonished that a person who makes up his mind either way regarding karate will be safe while the person who takes the “guess so” approach to karate places himself in harm’s way.

Jesus also instructed people who offered him conditional commitment that they would be better off not following (Luke 14:25-33).  In fact, half-hearted disciples make the Master want to barf (Rev. 3:14-18).  From the standpoint of the progress of the gospel, an open opponent is preferable to a half-hearted adherent.

Jesus and Mr. Miyagi teach that those who would come under their tutelage must buy in or get out.  The alternative is “squish.”

To be continued…