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.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

God's Punishment: Painful, but Necessary

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.  (1 Cor 5:4-5)

For this reason, we too should bear it patiently when we are handed over to vengeance by God.  The apostle [Paul] handed over someone from the assembly of the church to the devil for the destruction of his flesh; and he handed him over for the destruction of his flesh in order to preserve the spirit of the one who was handed over, not in order to destroy the one who was handed over.  Hence, Scripture says, “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”  Moreover the sinner is handed over to torments so that he may receive punishments for the present, and after suffering pain for his sins he may obtain relief in the future, and it may be possible to say about him, “He received his ills in his life.”*  So then, if anyone, after being tormented with punishments in accordance with the curse in which God has placed sinners, prefers to flee from the punishments and to send to Egypt so as to procure help—and to Pharaoh, from whom God liberated his people—then “he does not go straight; he will not be saved.”†  If, however, one patiently endures the curse and punishments … and in torment brings to completion the time [required for] his sins—just as that man did who according to the epistles of the apostle was tormented so that his spirit would be saved in the day of judgment—he will obtain a very good end.

Origen of Alexandria: Exegetical Works on Ezekiel, 12.3.3

*  Cf. Luke 16:25
†  See Ezekiel 17:15.  Origen is saying that the sinner will not be saved from God’s punishment by fleeing to the world for help.

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

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.