Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks for the Right Reasons

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., and as a nation we give lip-service to being thankful for family and friends; but based on advertising, the real thankfulness comes in being able to watch NFL football on television that day, or in Black Friday sales (which actually begins Thursday evening now).  The psalmist provides much better reasons to give thanks.

100 A Psalm for giving thanks
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
        Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the Lord, he is God!
        It is he who made us, and we are his;
        we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
        and his courts with praise!
        Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the Lord is good;
        his steadfast love endures forever,
        and his faithfulness to all generations.

Notice three eternal things about the Lord that are specifically mentioned:
  • Goodness – This is not just ascribed to God because of his benevolence.  His actions do not define his goodness, rather his goodness is manifest in his actions.  Goodness is an essential part of his being.  If it was diminished or removed, he would no longer be worth serving or knowing.
  • Steadfast love – This shows God’s compassion towards his people.  Regardless of their wandering and missteps in life, he delights to encourage and correct as a father does his children to make us more like the Beloved, Jesus.
  • Faithfulness – This is translated truth in NASB, thus showing that the faithful exhibition of goodness and mercy are not capricious but bound up in the certainty of God’s that has no end.
I enjoy food, family, and football on Thanksgiving Day, but how wonderful to remember that the Lord is God, and we who believe are his.

Friday, November 22, 2013

If I Do X, Then God Will Do Y

Recently, I was reading in Jeremiah.  Judah had been so disobedient to God's warnings through the prophets that the ultimate punishment (Deut 28:36-44) must be brought against the nation.  After lowering the boom, he gives this promise:
For thus says the Lord, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me.  When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jer 29:10-14)
Certainly a wonderful passage of God’s grace to Judah, but what is applicable for us today?  I ask because there are any number of comparisons that have been made over the years relating to:
    My country My local assembly My family Me
Do you notice a pattern?  The Bible is written for and about me.  Christians have a fascination for continually doing this with scripture texts.  I know because I have been guilty of the same.  Is there something wrong with wanting God's promises?  No.  We just need to understand that there are things he has promised that do not affect us directly.

In the passage above, God emphatically states that he will be thrusting his people from one physical location to another with the promise that, at the end of a specific period of time, they will be earnestly seeking the Lord.  Conversely, today’s believers will recognize sin in their nation/assembly/family/being with its consequence and then cry out to the Lord, claiming that he promised his presence if they would just pray more earnestly.

Do you see the difference between the text and this application?  In Jeremiah’s prophecy, God is setting the timing and conditions.  He is working on his people for their ultimate good.  In the contemporary setting, worshipers are attempting to demonstrate their fervor so that the Lord will accept them into his good favor.

One might say, “But the Lord has plans for me, a future and hope.  He says so here and elsewhere.”  True, he does have plans for us—to walk in good works he has prepared; and he  does promise the Christian a future and a hope—that of the resurrection and being with the Lord.  Notice that these are not given based on our level of desire, but his sure word of promise causes us to cast ourselves on him.

The message given through Jeremiah is one of certain hope and full assurance that he will not abandon his people forever.  This is something the prophets and apostles continually bring before us.  We cling to the Lord’s faithfulness and ability to bring it to pass.

Baby Boomer Legacy

Larry Peters admits to being critical of the Baby Boomer generation, of which he, my wife, and I are a part.  He makes the following summary points in a recent post:
So it was my generation that:
  • decided that you should hear the pop music you listen to on the radio in worship
  • decided that church should be fun and that pleasure should be that which defines the success of the worship service
  • decided that morals were in the eye of the beholder and that principles and truth were secondary to what seems right at the time
  • decided that if you get bored, don't like the music, or feel rebellious, drop out of church...
He has pretty much nailed it.  Woe on us for leaving such a legacy.  Now, can the course be righted?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Every Good Hymn Is a Sung Confession of the Word of God

Ronald Stephens has written some reflections as he looks toward Christmas at his church.  I really enjoyed what he said at the end of the post, especially this first sentence.

Every good hymn is a sung confession of the Word of God.  It works in concert with the Scripture readings and liturgy of the Divine Service, and mines the depths of God’s Word to bring Jesus to you.  A good hymn proclaims Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection for sinners, for us.  The same is true of Christmas carols, and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is no different.  Here we sing of the Child of Bethlehem, born in our flesh to redeem us.

So as you sing the carol this year, remember that what you sing rolls St. Luke 1 & 2, St. John 1 & 10, Colossians 2, and the Nicene Creed into one hymnic confession.  Think for a minute what that means.  As you sing, you are confessing that to redeem you, almighty and eternal God Himself took on flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone to be your very Brother.  He becomes Man to join with you in your misery, to bear the load of your sin, to bear your punishment.  God has become Man for you.  Jesus has wrapped Himself in your flesh and placed Himself under the tree of the Cross for you.  And by the death, resurrection, and ascension of the enfleshed eternal Son, your human nature is exalted to the right hand of the Father.  There, Jesus intercedes for you as He prepares a place for you in His Kingdom.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Great Authority Empowers Great Commission

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)

This authority was given to one who had just been crucified, buried in a tomb, and afterwards had arisen.  Authority was given to him on both heaven and earth so that he who once reigned in heaven might also reign on earth through the faith of his believers.

First they teach all nations; then they baptize those they have taught with water, for the body is not able to receive the sacrament of baptism before the soul has received the truth of the faith.  They were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit so that the three who are one in divinity might also be one in giving themselves.  The name of the Trinity is the name of the one God.

What a marvelous sequence this is.  He commanded the apostles first to teach all nations and then to baptize them in the sacrament of faith and then, after faith and baptism, to teach them to observe all that he had commanded.  Lest we think these commandments of little consequence or few in number, he added "all that I have commanded you," so that those who were to believe and be baptized in the Trinity would observe everything they had been taught.

Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 4.28:18-20

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It

This past weekend, I had my Bible open to Matthew 7 to prepare for our Small Group. Verses 13-14 were being referenced in the video series, so I thought this was a good opportunity to build a couple questions for them.  As I was studying, a link to verse 12 jumped out. Here is the passage:
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.  (Matt 7:12-14)
The text is often separated as you see I have here, with verse 12 coming at the end of the preceding paragraph or standing alone as a paragraph. Jesus uses this to summarizes his teaching from as early as 5:17, where he introduces his place in relation to the Law and interprets it correctly for his hearers.

Jesus then, having built his case concerning the Law, gives the imperative: enter by the narrow gate.  What is the that narrow gate?  I have heard preachers compare it to different things—Jesus himself, the cross, belief, etc.—and none of these is wrong.  They just give only a part.  Based on context, the narrow gate and ensuing way is the fullness of the Law and prophets, or in other words, all that is revealed in his word.  It is righteousness that can only be found in God.

Notice I did not say this was a verse about getting saved.  Certainly that is part of the matter, because you need to enter the narrow gate.  One must come by that way alone, but Jesus does not stop there.  He goes on to say that the way afterward is hard.  There is trouble, affliction, and pressure exerted on the person who enters by the narrow way to get off track.  Only by staying on the path once started can the believer hope to end well.  This is a major point of several NT epistles.

How do we remain on the path and not veer off?  Certainly not by virtue of our own strength.  We become faint of heart and can be too easily blown around by every wind of doctrine.  The only reliable alternative is to rest on the security of the soul's anchor: the promised of God in Christ Jesus (Heb 6:13-20).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

24-Hour Bible Study on the Psalms

Yes, you read that correctly.  Issues, etc. has an annual 24-hour Bible study.  This year the speakers take up Major Themes in the Psalms.  Below is the schedule from their bulletin insert.  I try to catch snippets live but usually wait to download the podcasts later.

Issues, Etc. 24
LIVE Friday, November 22 - Saturday, November 2
(All times are Central.)
Major Themes in the Psalms
11 am-1 pm    Dr. Carl Fickenscher    Creation
1-3 pm    Pr. Will Weedon    Zion
3-5 pm     Dr. John Saleska     Descriptive Praise
5-7 pm     Dr. Peter Scaer     Wisdom
7-9 pm     Pr. Bill Cwirla     Messiah/King
9-11 pm     Pr. Jonathan Fisk     Enemies
11 pm-1 am     Pr. Tom Baker     Individual Praise
1-3 am     Dr. John Kleinig     Community Praise
3-5 am     Dr. Joel Humann     Liturgical Psalms
5-7 am     Pr. Peter Bender     Personal Laments
7-9 am     Pr. Bryan Wolfmueller     Trust
9-11 am     Pr. Brian Kachelmeier     Community Laments
Listen LIVE or on-demand at

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Heaven Was Gained for Man, Not by Might, but by Humility

When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”  (Matt 26:1-2)

[M]en ought to know that the arrangements of the Most High God have so advanced from the beginning, that it was necessary, as the end of the world approached, that the Son of God should descend to the earth, that He might build a temple for God, and teach righteousness.  But, however, not with the might of an angel or with heavenly power, but in the form of man and in the condition of a mortal, that when He had discharged the office of His ministry, He might be delivered into the hands of wicked men, and might undergo death, that, having subdued this also by His might, He might rise again, and bring to man, whose nature He had put on and represented, the hope of overcoming death, and might admit him to the rewards of immortality.

Lactantius, Divine Institutes IV.10

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Scripture Is Not of Private Interpretation

There is no doubt that there are many figures of speech in Scripture, but it is also certain that not all the figures of speech or tropes are in veiled language.  Many in Scripture are very clear and can be treated and interpreted on their own terms or with the simple and natural meaning of the words.  But is there not such a thing as freedom in the interpretation of a particular passage of Scripture to the degree that seems good to each individual so that we may either retain the proper meaning of the words or through the use of a figure of speech depart from the simple, proper, and natural meaning of the words according to each person’s notions?

The answer is a categorical no!  For if this were the case, all dogmas and all articles of faith could be so completely overturned and bypassed that all assurance of faith would be snatched away from consciences.  Therefore it is necessary that there be a definite rule or analogy of interpretation as to which passages of Scripture are to be treated as figures of speech and which are to be taken in their simple, proper, natural, sure, and usual sense, so that the conscience can rest safely and securely in the interpretation which has been given.

Martin Chemnitz, The Lord’s Supper

Friday, November 8, 2013

Jesus’ Resurrection Brings Sweet Consolation

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  (1 Thess 4:13-14)

[Paul] proposes instruction on the resurrection to console those upset about the dead.  He does not completely oppose grieving, but rules out an excessive degree, and consoles them with hope in the resurrection.  Those without it have an excuse for uncontrolled grief.  This is the reason he did not say, “about the dead,” but “about those who have fallen asleep,” bringing consolation through the use of this term.  Then he offers a proof of the resurrection from what they had heard of the teaching of Christ the Lord.  If the resurrection of Christ seems to us worthy of belief, let us believe that we also will attain resurrection.  It was for our sake the the mystery of the incarnation was arranged.

Theodoret of Cyrus, “The First Letter to the Thessalonians”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Is the Quality of Your Fruit?

“You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

What a startling way to address someone, especially to those who were supposed to be your spiritual leaders, yet John the baptizer did this very thing (Matt 3:7) when he saw Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism.  Why?  They had issues.  These men had assumed that, they could come to this prophet because they were the spiritual elite: children of Abraham and learned in all the laws of Judaism.

But they were relying on the wrong things.  They did not realize that they were in great need, as great a need as any sinner coming to the Jordan River.  Their fruit was rotten, because their root was rotten.  All coming that day were in need.  What was it that John said?  “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”  John warned that the axe was going to fall: “Every tree … that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Every tree—no exceptions.

How does someone bear good fruit?  By being connected to a good branch connected to a good root.  The prophet Isaiah says there is such a branch called “the shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isa 11:1).  He is properly rooted and fruitful.  The Spirit of the Lord rests on him.  That branch, the Lord Jesus, is righteous and faithful, and only in him can the nations (in other words—you and me) bear fruit keeping with repentance.

You and I bear fruit, but of what quality is it?  Without Christ, the fruit is rotten, because, we have no capacity to bear good fruit as David says in Psalm 14:1-3.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
    there is none who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
    to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one.
Right now you might be thinking, “I’m not like that.  I believe in God.  That’s talking about those other guys, the really bad ones.”  No, the apostle Paul says this is talking about you, too (Romans 3).  Left to ourselves, we are altogether corrupt and hopeless, producing nothing of real worth.

Jesus, the only branch capable of bearing good fruit, died for our sin and corruption.  What we had rejected through Adam in the garden is now presented to us as a free gift.  There is life and that abundantly.  As a result of his life flowing through us, we are able to bear good fruit.  Again, it is not produced because we now try harder or for better reasons, though both of those might be true, but as a result of being joined to the source of life by grace through faith.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Harsh Criticism Is Not Hardheartedness—Just the Opposite

Jeremiah 8:18-22
My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
    my heart is sick within me.
Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
    from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
    Is her King not in her?”
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their carved images
    and with their foreign idols?”
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
    and we are not saved.”
For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
    I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
    not been restored?

As much as I critique and call into account where the church comes short, there is another part of me that wants to weep.  Christians are led astray and then propagate sin and error by their own hand assuming all is externally well.  Through poor instruction by a trusted person and solidified by a conflation of Bible texts, error spreads.  Sin, once realized to have put Jesus on the cross, receives some innocuous dabbling because “it’s not hurting anyone else” or “_____ are doing it” (you fill in the blank) that leads to rationalizing of more sin.

Even worse is that we who engage in this activity actually understand there is something wrong.  The Holy Spirit will use the Word of God that we know, hear, or read to prompt us that something needs a course correction.  And then we apply our own medicine on the wound.  We try harder and invest in “cures” that can leave us emotionally or physically spent.  The problem becomes worse when it is not addressed as spiritual in nature.

Those seeking to assist have a difficult task before them.  They recognize the spiritual nature of the problem and offer spiritual solutions but are often considered to be “holier than thou” or sinners casting the first stone.  It is true that spiritual men and women are still waging war with the law of sin still in their members (Rom 7:22-23), but their hearts grieve over what sin and error do to the church.  Exposure of wrong is not meted out in pretense or feigned authority, but through a careful investigation of scripture and understanding that all I am or have comes from the Father.

Some say we should be more like Jesus in how we deal with people.  Based on my Bible reading, I am comfortable stating that the Lord Jesus is the harshest critic that ever walked the earth.  In Matthew 23, he rails against the scribes and Pharisees with seven pronouncements of woe for their reprehensible behavior.  Then as soon as he completed them he turns to the city and lays his heart bare:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  (Matt 23:37)

He still cared.  And to what extent?
[Jesus] directs His speech to the city, in this way too being mindful to correct His hearers, and says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!”  What does the repetition mean?  This is the way of One pitying her, and bemoaning her, and greatly loving her.  For like a beloved woman, herself indeed always loved but who had despised Him who loved her, and therefore on the point of being punished, He pleads, being now about to inflict the punishment.  This He does in the prophets also, using these words, “I said, ‘Turn to me,’ and she returned not.”

Then having called her, He tells also her blood-stained deeds, “You who kills the prophets and stones them those who are sent to you, how often would I have gathered your children together, and you would not.”  In this way He is also explaining His own dealings with her: Not even with these things have you turned me aside, nor withdrawn me from my great affection toward you, but it was my desire even so, not once or twice, but often to draw you unto me.  “For how often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her brood, and you would not.”  And this He says to show that they were ever scattering themselves by their sins.  And His affection He indicates by the similitude; for indeed the hen is warm in its love towards its brood.  And everywhere in the prophets is this same image of the wings, and in the song of Moses and in the Psalms, indicating His great protection and care.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Where Is Your Boast?

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord.  Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.  Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”  (Jer 7:1-4)

God's people have a tendency to rely on their structures and procedures to assess or validate their practice, when they should be attending to what they were called as the Lord’s chosen.  Judah had made the fateful mistake of thinking that since the temple was still in their midst, that they were still living under a divine blessing.  Solomon’s temple had been erected approximately 350 years prior and still stood as the symbol of God’s enduring presence, which they took as a stamp of approval for their lackluster worship and overall spiritual decay.

Judah was about to be taken to task for their indiscretions, but God sent yet another prophet to warn the people to repent and amend their ways.  The people were unjust and idolatrous, thinking that if they did what was wrong and then performed the required sacrifice, all was well.  In other words, they believed that performance of the act satisfied for the sin.  God called the people to consider what he had already done to Israel, repent of their false assurance, and place their trust in the Lord.  The people’s continued disdain would only bring retribution upon their heads.  Though they had the example of the wilderness wanderings and the Judges, their wickedness exceeded what their ancestors had perpetrated (Jer 7:26) and deserved stricter judgment:
But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.  Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.  (Luke 12:48)
Fast-forward 2700 years.  God’s people have the entirety of God's self-revelation in the cannon of scripture and high quality teaching and leadership from many venues, yet we do no better than Judah.  What do I mean?

Looking across the landscape of Christendom, one can find churches and denominations groups that champion rights across a spectrum of confessional to Bible-only; literal interpretation to postmodern deconstruction; and these can be found adhering to a form of polity which varies in liturgy from strict to free-form, music from chant to contemporary, and hierarchy from highly structured to flat.  Regardless of the make-up, one thing is usually certain: each group believes they are doing things the “right way,” basking in God’s favor.  Every local assembly of which I have been a part has felt this way.  I assume yours does as well. 

This is not an indictment against the multiplicity of denominations as much as it is against spiritual pride.  In many ways we are as guilty as Judah of old by holding up polity and programs as metrics of correctness and blessing, rather than taking stock of the spiritual condition.  Ask yourselves some questions:
  • Does the preacher tell us of our lost and sinful condition with Christ crucified as our only hope, or do you get a lesson in life skills?
  • Does Sunday School teach how God worked through men and women of faith, or do you come away with the importance of getting along with people and caring for the environment?
  • Is your small group a place where you build up one another through fellowship and prayer or a gossip/gripe session where others are torn down but you feel better about yourselves?
  • Do Bible studies work through the Bible, or are the studies taken primarily from a popular author’s latest book on how to be a better man/woman/husband/wife/parent?
  • Are the historic creeds and sound teachings of past centuries studied and used, or are the latest theological and doctrinal works consulted?
These pairings may appear to be at odds with the first-mentioned being correct and the last incorrect.  Actually, they are all good and salutary in their place.  What happens, however, is that the latter is done while the former is ignored, thus stating or inferring that is the only correct way, and “thou shalt not vary from the course.”  Over time the method becomes entrenched so that it is maintained though the individual is left languishing for lack of sound doctrine.

You and I cannot assume that because we go through the motions set in place by the assembly leadership whether in the current generation or centuries prior, that we are in growing in Christ.  That is not where we boast.  The concern should be: Am I—is my church—living before the Lord in a way that pleases him?  If not, from what should there be repentance in order to move forward in Christ and be used by him?  We learn of the the Lord, our just and merciful God, and boast in him (Jer 9:24; 1 Cor 1:31).

Monday, November 4, 2013

Abound in Love to Be Established in Holiness

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.  (1 Thess 3:11-13)

The divine apostle called the practice of love the fulfillment of every law, so he prays they increase in number and abound in love—that is, acquire it in its perfection so that nothing may be lacking to it—and that they practice it not only with one another but with all their fellow believers, wherever they be.  “This is the way, after all,” he is saying, “that we feel about you, though far away, wanting to strengthen your hearts so that you may even now be seen by the God of all to be free of blame, and with all the saints you may go to meet Christ the Lord.”

Theodoret of Cyrus, "The First Letter to the Thessalonians"