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.

Signs and New Wine

Does it matter what words or names we use to describe things? I would contend that it does. Word meaning is a function of the way society uses them. While we might continue to want to use a word or phrase in a particular way, we don’t get to determine their meaning. Society does that for us and it is our responsibility to conform our usage accordingly if we want to truly communicate. In some cases words or phrases become soiled by the usage of others and we will have to discontinue their use if we want the concepts we’re espousing to remain palatable to our hearers. Words are containers for ideas. To help others understand this concept, I’ve concocted the following parable. I hope you enjoy the story and get the message.

Glass-wine-antique-decanter-with-handle-glassReginald was the steward over The Great House.  His father had been the steward before him and his grandfather before his father.  The Lord of the house was not only wealthy and wise, but generous as well. Every week, he would invite all of his servants and those from the surrounding villages to a great feast. As chief servant over The Great House, Reginald carried the honor of serving the wine.  Promptly at 6 o’clock Reginald would go to the kitchen and fetch the decanter from the cupboard and take it down to the family vintage to fill it up.  As he descended the stairs, Reginald would walk with almost a processional gate.  There was something sacred about this ritual and about the decanter.  For three generations his family had gone through this same routine carrying the same vessel.  As Reginald entered the great dining hall with the decanter, he almost felt as noble as the host of the great feast.  That beautiful container it seemed held more than wine.  It held his rich heritage as a servant to the Lord of the house.

One week, just before dinner, a great commotion broke out in the kitchen.  A new cook had taken on himself to include his own ingredients to the standard soup served before the main course.  The chef was livid.  He began to hurl anything he could get his hands on at the new cook.  Hearing the commotion, Reginald shot into the kitchen just in time to see the chef fling the great decanter at the cook.  The cook ducked and the decanter began its decent. Time seemed to stop as Reginald dove for it. He tipped its fat belly just enough to divert its path from the floor to the wall averting total destruction.  The stopper flew off and shattered and the handle broke – along with Reginald’s heart.  He stood up holding the remainder of the decanter looking down at it.  His body quivered partially out of grief and partially from rage.  Then he looked slowly up at the chef.  Something that sounded partly like a growl and partly like a hiss gushed through Reginald’s bottom lip, “You fool!  A man such as you does not deserve to prepare meals for our Lord.  From now on you will wash dishes while this new cook will take your place as chef starting now!”The chef’s face blushed, then blanched and then darkened. He said nothing but turned and skulked out of the room. The new cook gingerly slid over to the chef’s station and continued final preparations for the great feast.

Reginald, still quivering, cradled the decanter close to his chest as he ambled down the steep stairs to the family vintage. Though, there were other ornate vessels in the household, Reginald entertained no alternative to the sacred decanter. The damage it had sustained did not diminish its worth for him and so just like the week before, he filled it with the best wine the Lord of the house possessed and began his ascent up the stairs. As he trudged upward, his aching heart pulled his shoulders together and his chin downward. The battered decanter would not allow itself to be held forth but now required a closer grip with one hand around the neck and another supporting the bottom. Reginald’s thoughts wandered to his fore-bearers and their illustrious, lifelong careers. Shame and regret joined the grief and anger loitering in his heart. One event. One moment. Decades of glory were tarnished in an instant. How could this be?

As Reginald poured the wine, his pain began to subside. The guests marveled and raved over the exquisite vintage. Reginald comforted himself knowing that the real glory of the decanter had remained through the violence it had suffered. Reginald’s thoughts turned from the legacy left him by his father and grandfather to his own descendants. His furrowed brow smoothed and the corners of his mouth lifted as he thought of how they would tell the story of the chef’s tantrum and how the decanter had survived his assault. As the lamps in the great house were being extinguished and the watchman took his seat, Reginald had almost fully recovered from the trauma he had suffered. That night, his sleep was deep and his dreams were sweet.

The chef, however, could not sleep. The anger which had flared in him toward the new cook and his culinary presumption had dampened into a seething heat in his bones. That flame burned ever hotter as it fed on the memory of how he’d been disregarded, then violated and finally shamed. Over that steady, relentless heat the chef cooked up his revenge to be served quite cold the following week.

Coming into the kitchen late that night while all satisfied souls slept, the chef lit the main lantern and surveyed the filth which the new cook had left for him to relish. And relish it he did. With a giddy spring in his step he gathered two buckets and flew down to the well. He began to whistle a tune as he heated the water and gathered the greasy pots, the bloody knives and the soiled serving wear. When the water was sufficiently warmed, he filled the basin and with great flourish he scrubbed each item to spotless perfection, singing every tavern tune he could recall as he did. When the job was done, the chef took a step back to look at his glorious creation – not the stack of spotless dishes but the basin filled with grimy cess. Never one to let something go to waste, the chef put his concoction to good use. He took the old decanter from its housing and dropped it into the mottled, viscous ooze. Due to its specialized shape it floated for several minutes and then slowly sunk under the surface as the water filled its sacred chamber. At the sight, the chef’s mirth exploded into outright hysteria as a deep laughter erupted from his throat.

By morning, the chef had contained himself and fled the scene leaving only the basin filled with sludge and Reginald’s decanter filled with sludge. The angst and catharsis of the previous day had left Reginald depleted enough to make his normal waking time untenable. The maids could not afford such luxury and so they were the first to find the basin of dirty water.  Two of them lifted the basin and sloshed it out into the yard to dump it. As they did, the decanter tumbled out onto the lawn. It’s lifeless form lay there spilling its contents onto the surrounding lawn. The maids shrieked as if they’d seen a dead body.

The chef, who’d been waiting in his chambers to hear Reginald’s reaction came running to their side. “What has happened?” he asked.

“Our steward’s decanter!” They exclaimed. “Someone has soiled it with all of the filth from last night. Our Lord would never allow a polluted vessel like this to hold his precious wine. What will Reginald say? What will he do? What will happen to him? Surely, this will destroy him!”

“Yes, what will happen to him, indeed?” The chef thought to himself. He had hoped that he would have already known the answer to that question by this time in the morning but perhaps, this series of events might afford an opportunity to inflict such pain on Reginald that he might never recover. After all, his family had served as chief steward for far too long. Perhaps it would be time for a new dynasty in The Great House.

“Ladies,” the chef replied. “Why should your small minds attempt to entertain such large questions? The decanter, as you say, cannot be used for the master’s purposes but that does not mean it has no use whatsoever. I will put it to work on other needful duties in this house. As for Reginald, leave him to me.” And with that, he scooped up the pitiful container, tucked it into his overcoat and walked away.

The maids, however, failed to follow the chef’s advice and concerned themselves a great deal over the decanter. They told every servant in the house about what they had discovered that morning until the entire house was abuzz with the questions they had originally posed. But since no one wanted to bring the news to Reginald and since the chef had offered to handle it, Reginald remained oblivious.

By afternoon, the household servants could no longer stand the suspense over how Reginald would react, so they went to the chef to ask for an update.

“Yes, I told him all about it.” the chef lied. “You know, he took it surprisingly well. ‘No way to unring a bell’ or something like that was his response.  He told me that I could use the old thing for whatever best served the household. When he said that, I figured the best thing to do with it considering its shape would be to use it as a urinal on cold mornings when trips to the outhouse are just downright painful. So, I’m going to keep it here in the broom closet should any of you have a need.”

The servants were shocked. They struggled to believe that such a story could be true. Yet, they also knew that the decanter could no longer fulfill its time-honored purpose so they accepted the chef’s story. After a few days, they also accepted his suggestion. It was very cold outside and the wide mouth and bottom of the decanter did lend themselves splendidly to the other half of humanity’s liquid equation. By the time the week had passed, the vessel had been filled and emptied several times. On the eve of the great feast, the chef took the old decanter out of the broom closet, emptied it, and placed it back into its former place of honor.

Reginald, who continued to be kept in the dark shrouded over him by servants’ fear and by the subterfuge of the chef, went in high spirits to fetch and fill the vessel. The meal had begun with all servants attending the guests as he bounded out of the cellar in great anticipation of serving the glorious wine from this holy pitcher as durable as his family’s legacy. With flourish, Reginald burst into the great hall and held his decanter high. The guests all cheered at the sight of the symbol of the Lord’s generosity. Some of the household servants cringed, others stood with their mouths agape. One of the maids fainted and the butler threw up into a vase in the corner of the room. At this reaction, the guests began nervously to look around and then toward Reginald who stood dumbfounded. The room fell silent until one of the maids shouted, “Sir, please don’t serve the wine! That has been our chamber pot this entire week!”

The words rang in Reginald’s ears, boring their way into his resistant consciousness until their full weight landed with a dull thud on his soul. Reginald became light headed and darkness began to close in toward the center of his vision. With his last shred of awareness, Reginald staggered from the room into the kitchen where he found a stool on which to sit, his head between his legs. While he collect himself, he could hear the guests shuffling out of the room. They had somehow lost their appetites and were each going to their own homes. Under the dull roar, Reginald’s mind raced. How could he recover from this last blow?

Thankfully the Lord of the house had been away this evening. And why had he been away? Because he trusted Reginald to serve his great feast. He trusted Reginald because Reginald had always been perfectly faithful as had his father and his grandfather before him. Reginald thought, “And now it falls to me to decide how to proceed. To lose this great vessel would not only be a loss to me and my family but to the legacy and lore of The Great House.  I will not allow it to be discarded. Everyone knows how careful and faithful I have always been. I will wash the vessel three times and fill it with the best smelling oils for the next several days. Then I will wash it again. It will be ready to resume its regular duties by next week.” And so, after firing the chef, that is just what Reginald did.

The next week, the Lord returned to The Great House and took his place at the head of the table in the great hall where his guests were gathered. As he looked across the enormous table, he noticed a great many empty seats. Many of those whom the Lord had become accustomed to dining with were absent. Of those who had come, most were the lazy and disreputable rabble who were always welcome but who came not for the Lord’s company but for yet another handout. Though the number of guests was diminished, the Lord’s hospitality was not. “You are all most welcome here, dear friends, because whatever our state in life, we are one and so we should be together!”

The feast proceeded like always with salad followed by soup followed by appetizers and then the main course. As the main course landed steaming in the middle of the table, Reginald appeared in the doorway with his precious decanter of wine. The shocked guests, one by one stood up and excused themselves, bowing to the Lord of the house. As they left, many grabbed handfuls of food to stuff in pockets or purses. In his surprise, the Lord scanned the room. Every servant stood trembling (except for the butler who was throwing up into the same vase) and staring at Reginald who stood straight and proud holding forth the decanter. The Lord of the house followed the gaze of his servants to Reginald who was staring past him off into the distance. As soon as the Lord’s face was directed fully toward him, Reginald cleared his throat and offered, “Would you care for some wine, sir?”

Mere Christianity – Chapter 8 – “The Great Sin” – C.S. Lewis

I know a man who is haunted by Matthew 7:21-23. He won’t declare with 100% certainty that he is destined for eternal life and there is nothing anyone can say to assure him. Having read this quote this morning, I wonder if he is not plagued with spiritual pride.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not a bad person or an overtly arrogant man. I just wonder if he like so many others of us has been marinated in religious performance for so long that he has no idea that there is a difference.

My prayer for this man, myself and for you this morning is that all of us would have an encounter with the real and living God which would shatter our every illusion that we could merit his acceptance. That bereft of our relative worth we could come to the confidence that is also known as humility.

How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshiping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

via Mere Christianity – Chapter 8 – “The Great Sin” – C.S. Lewis.

Blame You

Christ’s commands us to love each other. It’s such a simple rule and yet we can’t do it without him. This is why he calls it a new command even though it was the one the Jews had heard from the beginning. Christ came to love and he left a community of love which he expected to remain and spread. Praise the Lord it has! On the night of his betrayal, Christ prayed that we would be one so that the Father would be glorified in the Son.

Conversely, this world and its Prince continue to conspire against God’s project by sowing bitterness among God’s people. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul warns his audience to forgive quickly lest they give the devil (blamer) a foothold among them. Nothing arrests our progress toward oneness like bitterness. When a fellow believer does something careless or even malicious (as will inevitably happen), we must at the foot of the cross offer them forgiveness. Why? Because mercy lives at the foot of the cross. In order to harbor bitterness, we must abandon the hope of our own forgiveness and flee the cross for exile in the solitary seat of judgment. In that realm “they” come to offer us aid and comfort as they help us build our case against our offenders and eventually the entire world.

Though this demonic program carries especially grievous implications for the believing community, every person on the planet has encountered it. The animated feature, “Meet the Robinsons,” offers one of the most poignant examples of the dynamics of bitterness and its power to ruin lives. At the end of the clip, the advice, “Let it go and keep moving forward,” is useful if we can understand where we can let it go to and which direction is “forward.” Those answers have been released in the gospel of Christ.

False Prophets, Figs and Faithfulness

blood-moons

We’re a curious species. And as the saying goes, “Curiosity killed the cat.” I’m not saying that it’s bad to learn. God gave us these wonderful minds and we commit sacrilege when we discourage honest inquiry into reality. God also gave us boundaries such as the inability to see the future or to know for certain what happens after death. Scripture condemns the aspiration to transcend these boundaries as divination.

“But what about prophecy?” you say. Yes, God does speak through the prophets but there is a difference between information that God gladly gives us and that which we attempt to take. Prophecy seems to come in two forms: First, there is often very clear instruction about how to react to something yet to come in the immediate future for a specific group or individual. Second, there is vague, general information about that which God will do in the distant future as with the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament or with Revelation. God does things this way because he knows how dangerous our divine pretensions can be and how we crave to know all that is yet to come.

Jesus’ own disciples revealed their vain curiosity on the Mount of Olives near the end of Christ’s ministry. In Matthew 24:1-2, Jesus gave them a peek at what was to come a few short decades into the future, that the temple would be demolished. The disciples immediately rushed toward this cracked door, hoping for full disclosure, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age.” (Matt. 24:3b).

Christ’s words in response to them command our consideration as well, “Watch out that no one deceives you.” (Matt. 24:4) Jesus knew that our speculative urge can easily be turned toward Satan’s purposes. For evidence of the blinding nature of speculation, one need look no farther than most commentaries on Matthew 24 itself. It seems that almost everyone looks at this passage as a foretelling of what will be at the end of time. Yet, Christ didn’t respond to the disciples’ probing with, “Okay, okay, since you guys asked.” Instead, he said, “Watch out!”

As Christ prepares to leave his disciples to engage a spiritually diseased world, he gives them an inoculation against speculation. Here on the eve of the fourth blood moon in this most recent tetrad, with BSF for the first time ever venturing into Revelation and the secular media replete with post-apocalyptic movies, I’d like to offer the church Christ’s prescription:

  1. A lot of people will buy the devil’s lies. It doesn’t mean they are true. vs. 5
  2. World events are neither predictive nor insignificant. Like birth pains, they declare, “It’s getting closer!” vs. 6-8
  3. The time between Christ’s first coming and second coming will be filled with persecution, apostasy, false religion, ever growing wickedness, and the worldwide proclamation of the gospel through the church. vs. 9-14
  4. The destruction of the temple will have no eschatological significance. So, don’t buy in to the end times hysteria which will immediately follow that event. vs. 15-25
  5. There will be no secret return of Christ. When he comes back, his presence will fill the sky like lightning and every eye will see him. The heavens will declare his coming and a loud trumpet will herald his approach. Both his enemies and his friends will know he has come again. His friends will be gathered to him at that time. vs. 26-31 (Rev. 1:7)
  6. The first coming of Christ has begun the last days. People often stumble over vs. 34 here but its always best to let scripture interpret scripture. Jesus said, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.” What could that mean? We’re either left with somehow coming up with a secret return of Christ within the lifetime of those standing with him which was just precluded or we look for another understanding. First of all remember Christ’s purpose with these teachings, to safeguard his disciples from speculation. If Christ was giving a 50 year window for his return, then he would have been defeating his very purpose. So, what could he have meant? I believe the answer can be found in the verse which follows directly after, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” We are all the generation under Christ by his words. He has no successor nor is there any mediator between us and him. In these words, Christ has precluded every Mohammed, Joseph Smith or David Koresh. This meaning fulfills his purpose and fits the immediate context.
  7. Anyone who says with any certainty or specificity when the end will be is a liar. If Jesus didn’t know, then William Miller didn’t know and Harold Camping doesn’t know. Our job is to live today like Christ will return today. Period. Exclamation point! vs. 36-51

Simple church planting resources galore

What if the essence of church could be boiled down to two words? What if believers in Christ shared life? When we share our lives – our time, money, burdens, joys, and struggles – we experience and demonstrate the kingdom of God. When we share his life, we intentionally engage with the lost and dying world through gospel-driven words and actions. This is church and we’re working to resource God’s people to share life through our new Life Teams app and it’s companion blog. Check them both out here:  http://lifeteamsblog.org/

Indispensable Unnecessary

Ever since I first read Neil Cole’s Organic Church the alarm on my phone has gone off at 10:02 every morning, Monday-Saturday.  It reminds me of Jesus’ command to his disciples in Luke 10:2b that they pray for the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into his harvest fields.  That alarm just went off. I offered up my cursory prayer and then looked up at my computer to continue my reading in With Christ in the School of Prayer.  It just so happened to be on chapter 9, “Pray the Lord of the harvest.”  Murray asks the obvious question, “Why would God who knows the need and wants people saved need us to pray for him to send out workers?”  The answer: “that His compassion may stream into us, and His Spirit be able to assure us that our prayer avails.”  

The question is often posed Christian circles, “Does prayer change outcomes or does it change us?”  The answer according to Murray is that we are changed when we pray with certainty that our prayer will change the outcome.  So, as Murray goes on to say: 

Let us set apart time and give ourselves to this part of our intercessory work. It will lead us into the fellowship of that compassionate heart of His that led Him to call for our prayers. It will elevate us to the insight of our regal position, as those whose will counts for something with the great God in the advancement of His Kingdom. It will make us feel how really we are God's fellow-workers on earth, to whom a share in His work has in downright earnest been entrusted. It will make us partakers in the soul travail, but also in the soul satisfaction of Jesus, as we know how, in answer to our prayer, blessing has been given that otherwise would not have come.