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?”

 

 

 

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.

Poker Face

“Something’s wrong with me?”, Jamie, my wife, said over the phone.  “I can’t straighten my legs.  What am I going to do?”

What was she going to do?  What was I going to do?  I was out on my route.  I couldn’t leave.  I felt helpless.  She was at home taking care of our two young children and she could barely walk.  Besides, I could hear the fear in her voice.  I worked extra hard to get home as quickly as possible.

When I got there, my concern turned to alarm.  Both of her legs were bent at a 75 degree angle.  She could neither sit nor stand comfortably.  I’ll never forget the sight of her hobbling up the five stairs ascending from our den into our kitchen.  As she ascended those stairs, I descended into despair.  “What could this be?  Some degenerative disease?  Why would it come on so suddenly?”  All of these questions raced through my mind.  I considered taking her to the doctor, but I had absolutely no faith that they would be able to help with such a strange problem.

We had plans that evening to eat at the home of our close friends and fellow believers, so I gingerly loaded her into the van and away we went.  After dinner, I related to my friend that I had been reading a book by Smith Wigglesworth on divine healing and I suggested that he and his wife join me in praying for Jamie.  We put her on the couch and I prayed like I had never prayed before.  Instead of asking that she would be comforted in this difficult time or that the doctors would discover the cause of the problem or even asking if God might be willing to heal her, I said, “We speak to these knees and in Jesus name we command them to be healed.”  When she stood up, she announced, “I’m better!”  The next day my family went for a hike at a local state park.  She’s not had any trouble in the eleven years since that evening.

That day I got to peer behind the veil of the material world to see what’s going on when we pray.  We’re involved in a high stakes poker game with the “father of lies.”  Jesus has told us that we have a winning hand, but as we look across the table at those mirrored glasses and that look of derision, our nerves can get rattled.  We push a few chips to the middle of the table – a five minute request qualified by lots of “if it be thy will.”

Satan responds, “It will take more than that if you want to see my cards.”

Our palms begin to sweat.  We wonder, “What if I stake all my faith on this hand and I’m beaten?  What will happen to all that I claim to believe?  What will happen to the faith of other people if they observe God’s promises fail?  Do I dare to stand?  Wouldn’t it just be safer to fold and cut my losses?”  So, we fold.  We walk away from the table with slightly less faith than we came with but at least we didn’t risk it all.  Meanwhile Satan sits at the table with a smug smile, holding a pair of deuces.

To all of us who too often fold in prayer, I commend the words of the apostle Paul, “Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  (Eph. 6:10-11 ASV)

Less Debating; More Discipling

This is an amazing video with some great thoughts thrown in. Just a reminder about how easily we’re thrown off course from carrying out the Great Commission. If we make disciples (I mean Christ followers) we will combat abortion!

Ben Moushon

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  John 8:7

Like many of the Evangelical Political issues that have overtaken the presidential elections this year, the debate over contraception coverage in the healthcare  baffles me.  And like so most of those issues, it seems like a loud majority is making uninformed assumptions about and trying to control the vast majority.  When the truth is Christians aren’t statistically much different than the rest of society.  There are similar percentages of Christians having premarital sex, watching pornography, abusing alcohol, getting divorced, abusing their spouses, stealing, lying, murdering, committing adultery…

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