Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Know the Difference

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.  (Col 2:8)

Vice mimics virtue, and the tares strive to be thought wheat, growing like the wheat in appearance, but being detected by good judges from the taste.  The devil also transfigures himself into an angel of light [2 Cor 11:14]; not that he may re-ascend to where he was, for having made his heart hard as an anvil, he henceforth has a will that cannot repent; but in order that he may envelope those who are living an Angelic life in a mist of blindness, and a pestilent condition of unbelief.  Many wolves are going about in sheep’s clothing [Matt 7:15], their clothing being that of sheep, not so their claws and teeth: but clad in their soft skin, and deceiving the innocent by their appearance, they shed upon them from their fangs the destructive poison of ungodliness.  We have need therefore of divine grace, and of a sober mind, and of eyes that see, lest from eating tares as wheat we suffer harm from ignorance, and lest from taking the wolf to be a sheep we become his prey, and from supposing the destroying Devil to be a beneficent Angel we be devoured, for as the Scripture says: he goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour [1 Pet 5:8].  This is the cause of the Church’s admonitions, the cause of the present instructions, and of the lessons which are read.

Cyril of Jerusalem, On the Ten Points of Doctrine, 1

Friday, October 17, 2014

We Worship What We Know

The secret things belong to the Lᴏʀᴅ our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.  (Deut 29:29)

If a definition must explain the nature of the thing defined so as to lead the mind, as it were, into the very thing itself, how then can God be defined?  The reply is easy: It is indeed true, concerning our knowledge of God in this life (1 Cor 13:12), that ‘we see in a mirror dimly;’ and so in the definition it is said, ‘He is of immense wisdom and power,’ i. e., God is greater than we can imagine or declare.… But in examining the definition we do not scrutinize those mysteries of the essence and will of God which He wishes us to be ignorant of; but we gather a brief statement from what God has Himself revealed to us in His Word concerning His essence and will.  And, since God surely wishes to be recognized and worshiped as He has revealed Himself, that description of God is to be held, to which the mind reverts in prayer; for adoration is nothing but a confession, whereby we ascribe to the essence addressed in prayer all the attributes comprised in the definition.  There is, therefore, a name of God, occult and hidden, which is not to be searched out.  There is, however, also a name of God made known that He wishes to be recognized, spoken about, praised, and worshiped.

Martin Chemnitz, Loci Theologici, I.25

Friday, October 10, 2014

How the Mighty Fall!

And a word of the Lord came to me: And you, son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, “This is what the Lord says:

Because your heart was exalted,
    and you have said, ‘I am a god,
I have inhabited a habitation of a god,
    in the heart of the sea,’
yet you are human, and not a god,
    and you rendered your heart as a god
’s heart.”  (Ezek 28:1-2 LXX)

The high priest had twelve stones adorning him on his shoulders* so as to serve as high priest for God.  The virtuous person builds on the unshaken foundation with these stones, which the fire does not have the power to burn up; and he builds with them upon his own shoulders, that is. upon his own labors.  And the one who possesses these holds the precious stone of showing and of truth between them on his chest.  And the twelve stones are on the one hand figures of the children of Israel, in which stones you will perceive the spiritual trees of Paradise, and the tree of life—the one who acquires this will have his head marked with the words “holiness of the Lord.”  From holy stones of this sort the gates of Jerusalem were composed†—and indeed, all of Jerusalem.  The “ruler of Tyre” had once clothed himself with all these stones, not by his own labors but by grace, as in the account of Jerusalem, and like the priest of God.  But he has fallen from all these, since he said in his heart, “I am God; I have inhabited God's habitation in the heart of the sea.”

Origen of Alexandria, “Fragments”, 28

*  Origen conflates the shoulder pieces (Exodus 28:9-12) and breast plate (Exodus 28:15-21).
†  Cf. Revelation 21:19-21.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Getting Back in Time

Through Glenn Chatfield, I learned of this post from The Cripplegate aimed at those who wish to repristinate the Church—or at least their own assembly—into a New Testament likeness.  Those desiring the “bliss” of the infant church are actually cherry-picking to create a sentimental caricature.  I especially liked some points made at the end:

I rarely hear people saying, “Hey, let’s not forget that in Acts 14:1, Paul and Barnabas spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.  Let’s make sure our pastors are trained in expository preaching!”

I rarely hear “Hey guys, we need to get back to proclaiming an exclusive gospel like Peter did in Jerusalem in Acts 4:12!”

I never hear “You know, Acts 17:11 teaches us that the church in Berea checked everything by the standard of the scriptures; we need to really cultivate a systematic theological and biblical training program in our church to better equip us to do that!”
Whether or not your assembly is not leaning towards a “return to Acts,” you can glean some things to consider.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Great Commission: It Just Adds Up

I would dare say that most evangelical Christians have heard of the “Great Commission” and could give one or two points from it—go, make disciples, maybe something about baptism and teaching, but probably nothing else.  I dare say that very few know the entire passage:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matt 28:18-20)
These instructions given in Galilee are not the entirety of all of Jesus’ final commissioning.  Luke will write of later occurrences wherein Jesus gives more detail, first in Jerusalem:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.  But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”  (Luke 24:45-49)
then in the proximity of Mount Olivet:
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  (Acts 1:7-8)
These three passages comprise the fullness of the Great Commission,† each passage giving important information regarding the task given to the apostles. Moving chronologically, notice where Jesus begins—he is the seat of authority.  From this basis, he laid down a definite ongoing plan to the apostles for growth of the Kingdom of God.  There is a call to go, and a command to make disciples through his authority by baptizing and teaching* with an assurance of his ongoing presence.  These men were given an outline for what their lives would be like as they lived before others in the power of the Holy Spirit without explicit instruction as far as the extent of their travel or the practical manifestation of Jesus’ presence.  This passage could be assigned the designation “Great Result” of the faithful proclamation of the gospel.

Moving to the Jerusalem account, Jesus opened their understanding of his death and resurrection and explained that they would be empowered to take his message of repentance and forgiveness to all ethnic groups.  This was not a new concept to the Jews, since the scriptures state that the nations would praise God (Psa 67:3-4; 72:11-17), but the expectation was that the nations would come to Jerusalem (2 Chr 6:32-33).  Jesus now points the apostles outward: Jerusalem is the epicenter of the movement, not the hub.  We can refer to this passage as the “Great Message.”

Lastly, just before he was taken up, Jesus tells the apostles near Olivet that they will finally receive the promised empowerment through the Holy Spirit in order to perform the task he gave them.  The plan was to start from where they were and move out gradually, and thus not overlook any people group.  All would hear the message of the gospel in this controlled thrust.  This passage can be described as the “Great Empowerment.”

Taken together, we can ascertain the Lord’s plan in preparing his disciples to carry the gospel out.  To sum up in mathematical terms, we have:
Great Result + Great Message + Great Empowerment = Great Commission
Jesus gives his Church the task, message, empowerment, authority, and target audience to announce his remedy for sin.  May his glorious gospel go forth as his people make it known.


*  While the Greek word poreuthentes is a participle that can be translated “going / as you go,” Robert H. Mounce makes a case that “Jesus’ instructions are proactive; we are to move out into the world, not simple [sic] make disciples when we happen to be there.”  In other words, Jesus was telling the apostles that they would certainly be going out and, as they went, would make disciples.  See http://zondervan.typepad.com/koinonia/2008/10/the-participle-as-imperative.html.
†  I am reticent to use Mark 16:15-18.  Though verses 9-20 are entirely accurate in the information they convey, it was most likely added later and is nothing more than a brief synopsis of Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry and the later apostolic era.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Religion, Relationship, and Righteousness

“Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship” is an attempt by well-meaning believers to drive home that the life of faith is one of daily repentance, active obedience, regular worship, and good works, as opposed to those performing deeds to attain a particular status before the object of devotion, to salve the conscience over inadequacies, to fulfill a cultural obligation, or some combination of these.  The problem is a misunderstanding concerning religion and relationship before God.  Each person coming into the world has a relationship with the Lord.  Those who believe on Him are elect sons of the Father; unbelievers are enemies of Christ.  Both groups have a relationship with God, but with opposite outcomes.  What began as a desire to promote active belief has become cliché and a target of derision.  For instance, earlier this morning I read the following on Facebook:
Christianity isn't a religion, it's a…  Oh wait, I was thinking sandwich.  It's not a sandwich.  It's clearly a religion. – Les Lanphere
This meme is biting and correct.  The attempt to separate deeds from intention and rapport is invalid.  Christianity is the standard for true and undefiled religion (James 1:27; see James 1:19-27), which has been the consistent understanding through church history.  From the early fourth century, we have an example from the North African, Lactantius:
Truly religion is the cultivation of the truth, but superstition of that which is false.  And it makes the entire difference what you worship, not how you worship, or what prayer you offer.  But because the worshipers of the gods imagine themselves to be religious, though they are superstitious, they are neither able to distinguish religion from superstition, nor to express the meaning of the names.  We have said that the name of religion is derived from the bond of piety, because God has tied man to Himself, and bound him by piety; for we must serve Him as a master, and be obedient to Him as a father.  And therefore Lucretius explained this name better, who says that He loosens the knots of superstitions. – Divine Institutes, 4.28.2
Lactantius has been comparing pure, true religion that God desires to the superstitious routines of false religion (cf. John 4:20-24).  He concludes that true religion comes from being bound by faith to Christ frees us from empty rituals, which are not really religion, but notions of personal or social appeasement.

More recently, nineteenth-century German theologian Heinrich Schmid wrote:
The subject of Theology is accordingly, Religion.  Religion is the way and manner in which God is worshiped.  That is a false religion in which God is worshiped in a manner that does not accord with His nature and will; that is the true and right religion in which this is done in the manner He regards as right and which He prescribes, so that hereby man, estranged from God, is brought back again to Him, and secures his salvation.  This proper manner is taught in the Holy Scriptures; and thus the true religion, more accurately defined, is that in which God is worshiped in the manner therein prescribed, and therefore the Christian Religion is the true one.  The proper manner of worshiping God must, accordingly, first of all, manifest itself in that disposition of soul towards God which is agreeable to Him, and secondly, in love toward our neighbor and the practice if all the virtues enjoined by God.  In the widest sense, therefore, Religion embraces all that God commands to be believed and to be done. (Doctrinal Theology, 21)
These two examples help demonstrate that Christianity, properly understood, is religion par excellence.  Jesus, Paul, and James are three voices from the New Testament texts that give the Church fresh teaching bolstering what YHWH gave Israel at Sinai for pious conduct in all of life, which is our worship as demonstrated in practical ways (see Rom 12:1-2; 1 Tim 5:1-16).

The difficulty for us as baptized believers is that we still sin, and to make up for any deficit, we call for believers to have more diligence in their effort.  Jesus has done what he is going to do in this relationship in making me righteous initially, but now the maintenance and growth is up to me.  Our attempts to get life in order lead to the empty ritual we were attempting to avoid—the rules are followed but nothing is benefited.  Christ causes the growth: he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).

Why do we try to do the Lord’s work for him?  We want to take some credit.  We want the bragging rights.  We realize anew that in the desire to do right, evil is close at hand (Rom 7:21).  We are wretched in ourselves, needing deliverance, but it is God through Christ Jesus who will bring it to pass.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Waiting for That Day

I am once again in Revelation as part of my routine NT reading.  I finished chapter seven and noticed something I missed previously because of a section heading inserted by the publisher.  The scene is of four angels holding back the winds and given power to harm the earth and sea.  To these another angel gives instruction:
“Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”  And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: …  (Rev 7:3-4)
Following this is a scene in heaven before the throne of God:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, …  (Rev 7:9)
In my circles these are accepted as two distinct groups because of the ethnicity and location, but I wonder if there is not more to be learned from looking at the whole.  Following are some comparisons.

Covenant relation – The 144,000 are sons of Israel and therefore God’s people in relation to the Mosaic Covenant, whereas the multitude are global in origin: outside the covenant relationship through Moses, they have been grafted in.  Both now are recognized as elect before God as children of Abraham by faith.

Relative location – The tribes are described as being on earth, whereas the multitude is before the throne of God.  We can see the difference in that one group is still a living testimony on earth, whereas the other has suffered and is currently worshiping before the throne.  Both continue to fulfill the work of God in the respective roles wherein He has left them.

Divine protection – The tribes have a seal placed on them guarding against what would come, while the multitude is described as coming out of great tribulation.  In effect both groups are delivered from the world’s judgment but through different ways.  The former are protected from the final judgment coming on sin, death, and the devil, but the latter has been called to suffer first before they were delivered.  Both are being kept in the care of God Almighty to wait for the end.

Certain hope – At the end of the chapter is a poetic piece attached to the multitude’s presence before the throne.
Therefore they are before the throne of God,
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
    and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
    the sun shall not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  (Rev 7:15-17)
To conclude that these lines relate only to the multitude already in heaven does injustice to those who are sealed and yet remain on earth.  The given promise befalls the elect from beginning to end.  All that are of faith rest assured that their place is with the Lord because the Lamb of God fulfilled what neither we in our attempts nor the Law in all its divine goodness could correct.  The bride will be welcomed by the Bridegroom and be joined together in glorious union, never to be parted.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Admitting a Wrong Done

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

What does this mean?  Answer: We should fear and love God so that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slender, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.  (Luther’s Small Catechism, Part I)

On September 16, I posted on my distaste of and disagreement to a capital campaign conducted by our local assembly.  Whether my critique on the procedure was valid or invalid is immaterial here.  I admit that assumptions and perceptions, rather than sound reason, ruled my thinking.  In other words, I assigned an invalid intent on the leadership.  That was sin.

In looking back on the months leading up to the post, I had opportunities to question the program being laid out and enacted.  I did not, first by allowing past experience with elders from other churches cloud how this group might react, and second by rationalizing that a public message after the fact.  The proper choice of action was to raise the concerns when they were presented.  That way I could have been enlightened on the thought processes behind decisions made or enlightened others to blind spots that may have entered through “group think.”

I wish to make a public apology to the leadership for bearing a false witness and have deleted the post in question.  And lest there be anyone who thinks that my actions come through some coercion from the elders, allow me to dispel the notion immediately.  What I do today was precipitated by a conversation with my wife and some providential reading along the same lines forcing a hard look at what I had done.

Lastly, some will think, “It takes a big man to admit he’s wrong.”  It takes a bigger man to avoid it.
My son, be attentive to my words;
    incline your ear to my sayings.
Let them not escape from your sight;
    keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
    and healing to all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life.  (Prov 4:20-23)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

God Does Not Abandon Those He Punishes

In a previous post, I relayed that God’s punishment of his elect is a painful but necessary ordeal.  While undergoing such seasons, there are times, sometimes lengthy, when the Lord seems to have abandoned his children.  Read the psalms and notice that more than once a psalmist would cry out in bewilderment, “Where are you?  Why is this happening?”  Juxtaposed to those times is the Babylonian captivity.  For decades the Lord had been warning his people through the prophets to return or be severely punished, and when the final blow was to befall Judah, he gave a fixed time of 70 years they would be forced out of their homeland because of their disobedience (Jer 25:8-14).

The latter occurrence drew Origen’s attention as he considered this first verse of Ezekiel:
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.  (Ezek 1:1)
What is notable about the verse?  To the uninitiated, there are date and location references, and some type of introduction to phenomenological activity, but Origen explains:
Not all those who were led away in captivity to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar went to Babylon because of sins—most of the people because of sins, but the righteous among them did not: such as Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael, this Ezekiel, Zechariah, Haggai, and those like them.  (Exegetical Works on Ezekiel, “Fragments,” 1)
We often do not pay attention to the historical setting, which places several God-fearing people in Babylon during the captivity—some who were forcibly taken there, and others born there who later returned.  During the times of adversity and discipline, the Lord has men ministering his word, offering comfort, hope, and encouragement.  The Jews in Babylon could look to those individuals and have a constant reminder that he was still dealing with his people for their good.
God who is good, and who punishes sinners, and hands over into captivity those who are not able to be in the holy land because of their sins—for opposites cannot exist—sends prophets along with them, so that the sinners may not be completely without help, when they have become captives.  For on the assumption that the sinners had been led away to Babylon on the basis of their sin, and there had been no righteous ones among them, there was no healing for the sinners.  Therefore, this was provided by [God’s] ineffable goodness.  For he does not hand over sinners to complete abandonment, but rather watches over them through his holy ones, about whom he said, “You are the light of this world, and the salt of the earth”*—he said this not only about the apostles, but also about those who are like them.  (“Fragments,” 1)
Yes, discipline is painful for a season, but the alternative, no discipline, means that you are not a legitimate child of his (Heb 12:8) being truly abandoned (Rom 1: 24-28) and left to your own destruction both in this life and the next.

God disciplines that we might share in his holiness (Heb 12:10).  We can be encouraged in this to lift drooping hands and strengthen weak knees, and make straight paths for our feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed (Heb 12:12-13).

*  Matthew 5:13-14

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Broken, but Restorable

The adult daughter of an acquaintance has admitted on her blog that she has not been actively participating in church life for several months now because, in her own words:
The truth is I've been hurt.  Badly.  So, I have some trust issues now.
I do not know the background, nor did I ask, but her experience is not that uncommon.  There are many stories of people walking away from the Church when they finally realize that what had been taught was not the biblical gospel, but a law-driven, rule-based set of standards to which a person must adhere in order to be in good standing and considered “spiritual.”  In spite of best intentions, the effort to maintain the facade wears one down.  After so long, the truth comes to light.  Zeal gives way to disenchantment, then disgust, as self-promoted perfectionism crashes against actual life.  Others, like this lady above, still cling to the Lord Jesus and the truth of scripture, but there are wounds inflicted deliberately or unwittingly by Christians just trying to help but did so in the wrongly.  The blogger goes on to say that it becomes like the emotional upheaval from a romantic breakup.  Healing can occur, but that will take time.

While reading that post, my mind went to Psalm 26:
Vindicate me, O Lᴏʀᴅ,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lᴏʀᴅ without wavering.
Prove me, O Lᴏʀᴅ, and try me;
    test my heart and my mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
    and I walk in your faithfulness.
I do not sit with men of falsehood,
    nor do I consort with hypocrites.
I hate the assembly of evildoers,
    and I will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence
    and go around your altar, O Lᴏʀᴅ,
proclaiming thanksgiving aloud,
    and telling all your wondrous deeds.
O Lᴏʀᴅ, I love the habitation of your house
    and the place where your glory dwells.
Do not sweep my soul away with sinners,
    nor my life with bloodthirsty men,
in whose hands are evil devices,
    and whose right hands are full of bribes.
But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity;
    redeem me, and be gracious to me.
My foot stands on level ground;
    in the great assembly I will bless the Lᴏʀᴅ.
David has been maligned by critics, and he goes before the Lord to lay out his case.  His life, according to his understanding, has been upright before God and man.  This expresses the feelings of any faithful, Bible-believing Christians receiving the brunt of misplaced intentions.  There is a desire to be worshiping where God dwells among his people, yet those people are the reason for separation and loneliness.  Talk about a “Catch 22.”

Restoration will take an individual route, but the psalm gives overall steps the wronged person should take:
  1. Take stock of your life against what scripture says.  Are you walking with integrity?
  2. Allow the Lord to test your life.  Have go mining to dig up what needs to be brought to light and refined.
  3. Keep the Lord before you.  There is a temptation to give up trying and walk away.  Remain steadfast and hold tightly to what God has graciously promised you in his word.
  4. Resolve to worship.  Worship is not always a joyful experience.  Most of the psalms detail wrongs, sins, abandonment, and the harshness of life, yet coming around to acknowledge that the Lord Almighty is ever-faithful and will stand by his word.
  5. Keep worship with the whole assembly as a goal.  You, as an individual, are meant to be involved as an integral part of the assembly, actively engaged as a member of Christ’s body.  Regardless of how restoration progresses, aim to be where his people gather.  Christians are not hermits.
Jesus died on the cross for the person offended and for those who caused the offense.  Restoration is possible through the working of the Holy Spirit in the strength that God supplies.