Monday, September 22, 2014

Doing Violence to God

And let us not think that we embitter only the word of the Lord if we sin.  Our transgression goes as far as to wrong God Himself; for it is written that one who sins “dishonors God by violating the Law.”*  It would be little enough if Scripture had only said, “dishonors”; but as things are, it says, “…dishonors God by violating the Law.”  As often as we violate the law of God, so often do we dishonor God.  The greater our transgressions, the greater the injury we inflict on God; the more we sin, the more we dishonor the Father and his Christ, as it is written, “How much more do you think they deserve worse punishments, who have trampled underfoot the Son of God, and have regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant, with which they were sanctified, and have done violence to the Spirit of grace?”†  So then, whoever sins embitters and does violence and dishonors both God’s words, which he has received, and the One who has taught him.

Origen of Alexandria: Exegetical Works on Ezekiel, 12.1.3

*  Romans 2:23, slightly adapted
†  Hebrews 10:29

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Gift of Grace

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  (Matt 11:28-30)

Do you need to lay your burdens at the feet of the One who gives you help in trouble?  Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  The life you crave is under the grace of God.  It is not a life of denial, suppression, or running away.  It is not a life of drowning your sorrows or displacing your anger or punishing yourself.  It is life that has the burden removed, the pain relieved, and the pressure soothed.  The price wasn’t cheap.  Confession of sin is not a “get out of jail free” card that you flip back onto the game board as you go your merry way.  The cost for the removal of our sin was the life of the Son of God.  His brutal death and abandonment by God is the result of casting our cares upon Him.  The gift is grace with great gravity.  It’s serious business that moves our hearts and causes us to fall down in worship and thanksgiving.  At the cost of His Son, God is our help in trouble.

Michael W. Newman, The Life You Crave: It’s All About Grace

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Making the Sweet Bitter

How sweet are your words to my taste,
    sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
    therefore I hate every false way.  (Psalm 119:103-104)

When believers have received these naturally sweet words, either they live well or they do exactly the opposite. And if indeed they behave in accordance with the divine standards, they preserve God’s words in their original sweetness. In my way of thinking, however, I consider that by the goodness of their way of life they actually increase the pleasantness of God’s words, as they mingle the delightfulness of their lives with the sweetness of the language.

But if, on the other hand, someone should sin and “walk crookedly” outside the commandments of God, that person receives the sweetest words of God but reduces all the pleasantness to a bitter taste, by virtue of the nature of the most bitter sin—for sin, which which drives out the sweetness of the words, is bitter.  Listen to an example, so that you will be able to attend more fully to what I am saying.  The plant which is called “absinthe” is naturally bitter; and if you put it into honey in proportion to the quality and quantity of the honey, it overcomes the honey’s sweetness by means of its own bitterness, and forces what is sweet to become bitter.  Sin has the power of this plant.  If I commit more sins, I introduce more bitterness into the sweetness of God’s words.  If my transgression is great, I turn all the sweetness of the honey into a bitter taste.

Origen of Alexandria: Exegetical Works on Ezekiel, 12.1.1-2

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It Wasn't About the Building—or Was It?

The people of our assembly have known for many months that the congregation has grown since moving downtown mid-2009.  We are the only evangelical presence in the neighborhood.  Other growing groups have abandoned the area for multi-acre plants on the outskirts of town in what appear to be concerted efforts to attain mega-church status.  In full disclosure, we had also considered moving to the edge of town and build on property purchased several years ago, but through a series of events, we were able to acquire our existing building at a price far below market value.  Praise the Lord for his goodness!  Our location has had a magnetic attraction as our attendance has grown 50% in the past five years without a concerted effort to draw newcomers.  In an effort to manage this many people, the overseers decided that two Sunday morning services should be implemented, which we have done for at least two years.  This helped, but regular attenders continued to have children, and now there is a squeeze for Sunday School space.  Something needed to be done.

Our leaders undertook an effort to determine the best plan for moving forward and came up with possible directions: (1) do nothing and let group dynamics take their natural course, (2) build on our vacant property outside of town, (3) build onto the existing building, and (4) purchase a different, larger building.  After much discussion, the fourth option seemed best, but, no buildings matched the criteria of price, suitability, and availability.  As divine providence worked, the office building across the street became available at a reasonable price.  After discussions with the current owner, the leadership determined that a capital campaign was initiated under the auspices of an expansion committee, which also investigated how best to use this property, should the purchase offer be accepted.  Those who made the above plans and decisions should be commended, and while I believe another option was better, the decision to move forward with the purchase of the office building is a workable and cost-efficient solution.  As part of the capital campaign, a slogan was proffered: It’s not about the building.  It is about ministry.  This is well and good as presented, and there is indeed a need to do something to take care of space, etc. for the proclamation of the gospel and making disciples, but there were nagging questions surrounding the campaign as it was undertaken.

As can be seen due diligence was taken to move carefully.  That was when the train came off the rails.  A decision was made that the pastor would interrupt the current series through the book of Acts in order to preach on sacrificial giving for eight weeks followed, after which came a push for a 150 hours of prayer scheduled around the clock and daily prayer walks around the building.  And the expansion committee began advertising the need for funds and the benefits of purchasing the office building.  Skits and videos were shown during the services to promote ways to raise funds.  Congregants were inundated with preaching on giving,* plus visual and oral advertising about the building.  Wait a minute.  If this campaign was not about the building, why all this emphasis and activity about the building?  If the purpose was actually ministry, why was the focus on not on the gospel or the kingdom of God?

Am I saying that there should be no preaching on giving?  Absolutely not.  In fact, the messages given were exegetically sound, but there was always an understood, and sometimes blatantly stated, goal to purchase the building.  Also, such preaching should be done as part of whatever section of scripture is being preached, not as a pointed effort to raise money.  Was the capital campaign wrong?  Again, no.  There needed to be a plan and goal for raising the funds, but the constant stream of information and motivational spots left one engorged to the point of nausea.  I get this type of advertising from radio and television.  Why am I getting it at church?  When the preaching series was announced, I asked my wife if we could be gone all summer: maybe we could (should?) visit other churches.  And we were not the only family that tired quickly of this tactic.  All understood that the combined input from pulpit and publicity were unnecessary, even out of line.

The campaign is over.  The preaching series on Acts is resuming.  We and others stuck it out.  Pledge cards have been turned in, and the final pledge total will be announced next Sunday.  If the purchase price is raised, it will be in spite of the campaign, not as a result.  Now we can get back to the work of ministry.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Build on the Truth

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.  (Matt 7:25-27)

Therefore, because eternal disgrace and shame have been stored up for us if we sin,* let us pray to God with our whole heart, that he may grant to us to strive for truth through the efforts of our minds and bodies, all the way to the end, so that, even if a certain amount of time intervenes to test our faith—for “as gold is tested in the furnace,”† so also our faith is tested in dangers and persecutions—even if persecution breaks out, he will find us prepared, so as to not have our house fall in the storm; so that our building will not be scattered by the tempest because it was constructed on the sand; so that when the devil’s winds blow (that is, the wicked spirits), our works will stand firm—and they have stood firm until this day, if at any rate they have not been secretly undermined; and, in our girded-up, hampered state, we will make manifest our love, which we have toward God in Christ Jesus, “to whom belong the glory and the power for ever and ever.  Amen.”‡

Origen of Alexandria: Exegetical Works on Ezekiel, 10.5.3

*  Origen has apostasy in view, not occasional sin.
†  Cf. Wisdom of Solomon 3:6; Proverbs 27:21 (Vulgate)
‡  1 Peter 4:11

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Who's in the House?

In every local church I have attended, the consensus teaching was that the Lord was present when gathered together for worship.  I wonder, though, if this wonderful truth of Scripture is effectively denied by how corporate worship is conducted.  What has God promised?  What are we confessing by our practice?

God Dwells Among His People: Past, Present, Future
Throughout the wilderness wanderings of Israel, the pillar of cloud went before the people, leading the way and demonstrating visually that the Lord was among his people (Exod 40:36-38).  Later, as the people prepared to enter Canaan, God promised to place his name at a specific location for worship (Deut 12:5-7).  There the tabernacle would be erected, and God would dwell in the midst of the cherubim above the mercy seat.  Later, the Lord anointed the temple with his presence after Solomon’s dedication (2 Chron 7:1-3) wherein the glory dwelt until it was ultimately removed (Eze 10:4, 18-19).  The promise of this presence was reaffirmed as Jesus explained to the twelve the indwelling and abiding presence of each member of the triune God: Father, Son (Matt 18:20; 28:20), and Holy Spirit.

The apostle Paul reinforced the indwelling presence in a corporate sense in writing to the church at Corinth:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16-17)
Lastly, we have the promise from the throne of God at the end of the age:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev 21:3)
If God has promised his presence as they meet together, one would expect a significant measure of respect in the conduct of worship in similar fashion to the command given to Israel: “You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Lev 19:30).  Currently, the sanctuary of God on earth is not a physical structure, but in the corporate gathering of his people.  How we conduct themselves in this gathering directly reflects our understanding of who is being honored and where the honoree is in proximity to the gathering.

Common Evangelical Practice
For the past six years my home assembly has had a regular format that I have discovered is quite common among non-denominational groups: opening song(s), announcements, special missions/ministry update or semi-monthly Lord’s Supper, more singing with a scripture reading, sermon, closing song.

How are announcements worship?  I do not say that these are unimportant.  Members (and visitors to an extent) should be kept abreast of pertinent information concerning the business or administration of the local church.  This needs to be disseminated.  My question has to do with placement in the worship meeting.  Listen to whomever leads singing immediately after this break, “Let’s continue our worship with….”  We acknowledge the worship was interrupted.  In effect, we are saying “Sorry, God.  Our business is more important than yours.”  With all the means of communication at our disposal, why must this occur during worship?

Missions or ministry updates are of greater import, since they deal with the work of the gospel, but can we call this worship?  When the update is given, who is the focus?  It is the missionary or ministry leader.  Should not the focus be the Lord Jesus?  Certainly updates are needed: it is good, important information.  We can rejoice in the work being accomplished or rally behind the need, but should we interrupt what is set aside for the Lord of Glory to make it known?

The Lord’s Supper (or Communion, Breaking of Bread, Eucharistic meal) is of vital importance in worship since it derives from and points to the completed work of redemption on the cross by Jesus to our behalf.  Why do we not celebrate this every week?  In our assembly, someone has a devotional that precedes the eating of the elements.  The comments are mixed because the men sharing them have varied understanding of whom they should be speaking.  Sometimes it is a personal anecdote leading to the bread and cup, sometimes a thought from scripture.  And then there are times when you wonder what the devotional has to do with Christ at all.  I commend the effort put forth, but I cannot help but feel that what is shared would be more pointed and intentional if the speaker saw Jesus sitting in the front row, because He is.

The proclamation of God’s word should be clear, distinct, and correct.  We expect this of our pastors; we should expect the same of our song lyrics.  Last Sunday we had a new song introduced (“Always Enough” by Kare Jobe) that spoke of how good I feel about an ambiguous deity named “God” and how he/she/it satisfies me.  Why?  Who was being worshiped?  You can’t tell from the lyrics.  Why introduce it?  The closing song, on the other hand, was “Victory in Jesus.”  Here is the first verse:
I heard an old, old story how a Savior came from glory;
How He gave His life on Calvary to save a wretch like me.
I heard about His groaning of His precious blood’s atoning,
Then I repented of my sins and won the victory.
That will preach!  With its simple melody this one verse delivered a richer, deeper doctrinal content than the entire song preceding it.  When we sing, do we understand that we are song to and about him who dwells in the midst of and with his people?

Do It Right
We are called to receive from our great God and Savior Jesus Christ and return praise, but not as though he is far off that we should go get him or try to build a bridge to his home.  He is with us.  Act like it, and thank him because he is present.

Psalm 75:1
We give thanks to you, O God;
        we give thanks, for your name is near.
We recount your wondrous deeds.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lord's Supper Demonstrates the Past, Present, and Future of Christ's Redemptive Work

The eucharistic prayer was a condensed form of the biblical story before creeds found a secure place in the order of service.  The eucharistic meal needs to be set in the context of the whole story of creation, redemption, and sanctification by the will of the Father, through the work of the Son, realized in the community created by the Holy Spirit.  For this meal focuses on bread and wine drawn from the gifts of creation; it regards the eating of the bread and the sharing of the cup as signs proclaiming the Lord Jesus’ death until he comes; and it anticipates the heavenly banquet by virtue of the coming again of the Lord in his body and blood.  Any coming of the Crucified and Risen One brings judgment and vindication, and therefore the community must be prepared to eat and drink together in the Lord’s presence in a worthy manner—reconciled with the Lord and with each other (see 1 Cor. 11:27-32).…

The church is an assembly “called out” of the world in order to enact in the midst of “this world” “the life of the world to come.” It does so by celebrating the eucharist as an eschatalogical event (the Lord’s Supper) by virtue of the presence of the Crucified and Risen One who reigns as Lord and comes again as judge.  It does so on the day on the day of resurrection (the Lord’s Day) in order to express the tension between the time of “this world” and the “fullness of time” in the eschatalogical presence of Christ and his kingdom.  The church gathers around the Lord’s table not so much because its individual members need the benefits of the gift of communion, but because the church itself—convened by the word—is constituted as the Lord’s people in the Lord’s Supper, and is sent from the meal into the world in the abiding presence of Christ through his Spirit to proclaim the gospel to the whole of creation (Mark 16:15-16) and all the nations (Matt. 28:16-20).

Frank Senn, Christian Liturgy, 702-703

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Get Over Yourselves

For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. (Titus 1:7-8)

Frequently, the priestly office and Levitical rank are a cause of pride for one who does not know how to hold an ecclesiastical position of honor. How many, after being made elders, have forgotten humility! It is as though they were ordained specifically in order to stop being humble. Indeed, they ought to have pursued humility more, because they had acquired a position of honor—as Scripture says, “The greater you are, the more you should humble yourself.”* And it is the assembly that chooses you; lower your head more humbly. They have made you a leader; do not be puffed up. Be among them like on of themselves. It is fitting to be humble, fitting to be lowly, fitting to flee from pride, the chief of all evils. Examine the Gospel: See with what kind of condemnation the Pharisee’s pride and boasting are attacked. “The Pharisee was standing and praying as follows within himself‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, wicked people, adulterers, and even like this tax collector; I fast twice a week.’” But the tax collector, on the other hand, standing humbly and quietly at a great distance, “did not even dare raise his eyes…and he was saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’” And the tax collector “went down to his home justified.’”†

Origen of Alexandria: Exegetical Works on Ezekiel, 9.2.3

* Sirach 3:18. Note that the early fathers had differing views on the status of apocryphal works in relation to the 66 books which were generally accepted and officially recognized at Nicaea.
† Luke 18:11-14.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Pride, the Greatest Sin

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. (Ezek 16:49)

There is no doubt for anyone that, according to the teaching of the Scriptures, their sins are unequal. For the one set is called “great,” the other “smaller” by these Scriptures. Now, since sins are unequal, that is, either “small” or “very great,” someone might perhaps ask what the greatest among all sins is, and the answer is readily given that either fornication or impurity or some other pollution of lust is greater than all other sins. And indeed, those are truly abominable and filthy sins too, but they are not as bad as this one, which is condemned by Scripture here as greater than all the others, from which we must guard ourselves.

Then which sin is greater than all other sins? Clearly it is that sin because of which even the devil tumbled down. What is this sin, in which so great an eminence fell, that, as the Apostle says, “being puffed-up, he may fall into the judgment of the devil.”* The devil’s sin is being puffed up—pride, arrogance; because of these faults he passed from heaven to earth. Hence “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”† And “why is earth and ash proud,”‡ so that a man would be lifted up with arrogance, forgetting what he will become, and in how fragile a little vessel he is contained, and in what piles of manure he is submerged, and what sort of excretions he constantly ejects?… Pride is greater than all other sins, and is the primary sin of the devil himself. Whenever Scripture describes the devil’s sins you will find that they flow from the spring of pride; for he says, “I shall act with strength, and by the wisdom of my understanding I shall remove the boundaries of peoples, and I shall consume their powers; and I will move their cities which are inhabited, and I shall seize the entire world like a bird’s nest, and I shall take them away like broken eggs.”§ See how proud his words are, how arrogant, and how he considers everything as worth nothing. Such are all who are puffed up with boasting and pride.

Origen of Alexandria: Exegetical Works on Ezekiel, 9.2.1-2

* 1 Timothy 3:6
† James 4:6
‡ Sirach 10:9
§ Isaiah 10:13-14

Monday, September 1, 2014

It Is Finished

I had the privilege of writing a piece (based on Romans 10:5-8) for Grace for Sinners in their Ascension Series. My thesis was that we try to add works of faith to gain more righteousness before God, but nothing more is needed. The work is complete in Christ.

This morning I learned that the piece had been posted. You can read it here.