Friday, July 31, 2015

How Great Is Our God!

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.  God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.… This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.  Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.  For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

     The Lord said to my Lord,
     Sit at my right hand,
         until I make your enemies your footstool.

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.  (Ac 2:22-24, 32-36)

Was He one of us, who, after His body had been laid in the tomb, manifested Himself in open day to countless numbers of men; who spoke to them, and listened to them; who taught them, reproved and admonished them; who, lest they should imagine that they were deceived by unsubstantial fancies, showed Himself once, a second time, even frequently, in familiar conversation; who appears even now to righteous men of unpolluted mind who love Him, not in airy dreams, but in a form of pure simplicity; whose name, when heard, puts to flight evil spirits, imposes silence on soothsayers, prevents men from consulting the soothsayers, causes the efforts of arrogant magicians to be frustrated, not by the dread of His name, as you allege, but by the free exercise of a greater power?

These facts set forth in holy summation we have put forward, not on the supposition that the greatness of the Agent was to be seen in these miracles alone.  For however great these things be, how excessively petty and trifling will they be found to be, if it shall be revealed from what realms He has come, of what God He is the minister!  But with regard to the acts which were done by Him, they were performed, indeed, not that He might boast Himself into empty ostentation, but that hardened and unbelieving men might be assured that what was professed was not deceptive, and that they might now learn to imagine, from the beneficence of His works, what a true God was.

Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans I.46-47

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Don't Confuse Zeal with Piety

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.  (Lk 18:10-14)

But let our speech and petition when we pray be under discipline, observing quietness and modesty.  Let us consider that we are standing in God’s sight.  We must please the divine eyes both with the habit of body and with the measure of voice.  For as it is characteristic of a shameless man to be noisy with his cries, so, on the other hand, it is fitting to the modest man to pray with moderated petitions.… And when we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we ought to be mindful of modesty and discipline—not to throw abroad our prayers indiscriminately, with unsubdued voices, nor to cast to God with tumultuous wordiness a petition that ought to be commended to God by modesty; for God is the hearer, not of the voice, but of the heart.… And let not the worshiper, beloved brethren, be ignorant in what manner the publican prayed with the Pharisee in the temple—not with eyes lifted up boldly to heaven, nor with hands proudly raised; but beating his breast, and testifying to the sins shut up within, he implored the help of the divine mercy.  And while the Pharisee was pleased with himself, this man who thus asked, the rather deserved to be sanctified, since he placed the hope of salvation not in the confidence of his innocence, because there is none who is innocent; but confessing his sinfulness he humbly prayed, and He who pardons the humble heard the petitioner.

Cyprian, On the Lord’s Prayer 4-6

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mr. Music, Please?

Torrey Gazette is a good website that I have been following for a time.  This month they are promoting Top 5 Albums, and yours truly was asked to provide a post, which can be found here.  Don't stop there, though. Have a look throughout.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Stop the Hillsongization!

Oh come, let us sing to the Lᴏʀᴅ;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!  (Ps 95:1-2)

My wife and I have noticed that, more and more, our congregation does not sing much.  Oh, we have a band with guitars, keyboards, drums, etc. and lyrics displayed overhead, but few besides the band members actually sing.  Why is that?  The answer is rather obvious: the songs are not meant to be sung.

Recently, I discovered a post written by Jonathon Aigner addressing this phenomenon plaguing local assemblies.  He made two points that I found particularly useful:
  • Do music that is meant to be sung, and in a way that encourages healthy, hearty singing. – In other words, stop trying to sing instrumentally-driven music.  Instead, use what is accessible for large groups with simple rhythms and melody lines.  Let’s face the facts.  If band members, with past musical training, have trouble singing the song, how much more those in the pew?
  • Stop the Hillsongization of congregational singing. – Hillsong United has become quite the phenomenon to the point that one is not certain if the band is a result of the church or the other way around.  In either case, for some reason they have become the standard by which all other praise/worship bands are measured, and that is bad news.  First, people have begun to place a priority for the music style and experience over the message.  Second, Hillsong is a cesspool of heterodox teaching, which comes out in their music.  Of all the music I have heard that was produced by Hillsong, I can count on one hand those that were biblical—and have fingers left over.  Those who emulate or perform their music should stop immediately.*
I recommend the whole piece.

The church needs to recover something that has been dwindling for some time.  In 2008, Michael Raiter was sounding the call, and two years later, T. David Gordon wrote a book on the subject.  Worship is not a spectator sport, but it is increasingly becoming so.

*  Glenn Chatfield has had several good discernment posts with examples of the corrupt teaching at Hillsong church.  Also, read his thoughts on the general topic of music in worship.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Keep Your Account Short

And I urge you to show great zeal by gathering here at dawn to make your prayers and confessions to the God of all things, and to thank Him for the gifts He has already given.  Beseech Him to deign to lend you from now on His powerful aid in guarding this treasure; strengthened with this aid, let each one leave the church to take up his daily tasks, one hastening to work with his hands, another hurrying to his military post, and still another to his post in the government.  However, let each one approach his daily task with fear and anguish, and spend his working hours in the knowledge that at evening he should return here to the church, render an account to the Master of his whole day, and beg forgiveness for his falls.  For even if we are on our guard ten thousand times a day, we cannot avoid making ourselves accountable for many and different faults.  Either way we say something at the wrong time, or we listen to idle talk, or we think indecent thoughts, or we fail to control our eyes, or we spend time in vain and idle things that have no connection with what we should be doing.

This is the reason why each evening we must beg pardon from the Master for all these faults.  This is why we must flee to the loving-kindness of God and make our appeal to Him. Then we must spend the hours of the night soberly, and in this way meet the confessions of the dawn.  If each of us manages his own life in this way, he will be able to cross the sea of this life without danger and to deserve the loving-kindness of the Master.  And when the hour for gathering in church summons him, let him hold this gathering and all spiritual things in higher regard to anything else.  In this way we shall manage the goods we have in our hands and keep them secure.

John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instruction, 8.17-18

Friday, July 10, 2015

But He's Just a Man

The “historical Jesus” has been sought after for many years.  Whether John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, Reza Aslan, or Jesus Seminar conferees, critics have dismissed the gospel accounts as a well-meant effort to colorfully promote what was a celebrity rabbi life who met an untimely death.  Why anyone would think the gospel accounts are mythical, inflated, or otherwise altered beyond credibility, is beyond me.  The skeptics argue something like the pagans of Arnobius’ day:
“You worship,” says my opponent, “one who was born a mere human being.”*
Those pagans might have had an excuse for such a comment, not having a copy of the Scriptures readily available.  The so-called Bible scholars I mention at the opening are not ignorant of the facts.  They have read the primary documents and have willfully ignored the obvious statements from the gospel accounts themselves.  Each gospel writer gives internal evidence for his planned purpose in writing.

Luke and John give clear reasons for their accounts.  The careful doctor recounts the history in two parts, introducing the accounts as thoroughly investigated beyond contestation, while the aged apostle plainly states the thesis near the end of his work.
Luke 1:1-4 Acts 1:1-3 John 20:30-31
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

The other two writers are not quite as direct in their purposes, however linguistic clues abound, beginning with their openings.  First, Matthew’s opening:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  (Matthew 1:1)
With this summary statement, Matthew seeks to place his account in a direct line with promises found in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants.  In order to solidify this intent, he establishes the requisite bloodline through a genealogy (Mt 1:2-17), prophetic fulfillment of the birth and surrounding events (Mt 1:18-23), and finally, the anointing of the Holy Spirit by which God places His seal on Jesus (Mt 3:1-17).  These give a proper foundation for the remainder of the book which establishes Jesus’ person, ministry, redemptive work on the cross, and final commission to His apostles.

Mark’s thesis statement also comes at the very beginning.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  (Mark 1:1)
At first reading, one might see this merely as an introductory statement, however a close examination shows that the writer emphasizes the gospel as pivotal throughout.  Note the uses in relation to Jesus.
Beginning of His ministry
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”  (Mr 1:14-15)
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  (Mr 8:35)
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”  (Mr 10:29-30)
End of ministry teaching on the Eschaton
And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.  (Mr 13:10)
Anointing before crucifixion
And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.  (Mr 14:9)
Final commission
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”  (Mr 16:15)

In the above examples, the gospel writers were careful to craft their accounts accurately in order to undergird the unwritten, eyewitness accounts and faithfully acknowledge the prophecies pointing to His birth, life, and death.  The idea that there might be a concoction of ideas to consider a man being himself deity and his works as from self-originating divinity is absurd.  Not even the pagans would go this far.

Arnobius addressed the pagan objection of Jesus’ person this way:
Even if that [mere humanity] were true, as has been already said in former passages, yet, in consideration of the many liberal gifts which He has bestowed on us, He ought to be called and be addressed as God.  But since He is God in reality and without any shadow of doubt, do you think that we will deny that He is worshiped by us with all the fervor we are capable of, and assumed as the guardian of our body?
The apologist did not reason that Jesus was less than God, as will be seen below, but wished to address the objection according to their understanding.  Many in the pantheon of gods, had been mere humans but were accorded a divine status after death based on prior works.  Instead he reasoned that the works of Christ were of such a nature, that to deny a status of divinity in relation to the false gods would be a travesty.  And since He is indeed God, how much more worship is deemed appropriate.

After deflecting objections to both His method of execution and person as being base and unworthy of divine consideration, Arnobius anticipated a fit of incredulity from his opponents.
“Is that Christ of yours a god, then?” some raving, wrathful, and excited man will say.
Lest the reader think that the retort is actually an acknowledgement of the Lord’s stature, this is more along the line of: “Do you actually think He’s good enough to qualify?”  The pagans had regard for their gods, and regardless of which they worshiped, qualification to that august group needed to be properly vetted.  How could someone who died the death of a traitorous criminal qualify, regardless of the goodness of his deeds?  That would be unthinkable.

Arnobius’ response?  He is greater than their gods to the greatest degree.
We will reply: God and God of the inner powers; and—what may still further torture unbelievers with the most bitter pains—He was sent to us by the King Supreme for the greatest of purposes.  My opponent, becoming more mad and more frantic, will perhaps ask whether the matter can be proved, as we allege.  There is no greater proof than the credibility of the acts done by Him, than the unusual quality of the miracles† He exhibited, than the conquest and the dissolution of all those deadly ordinances which peoples and tribes saw executed in the light of day, with no objecting voice; and even they whose ancient laws or whose country’s laws He shows to be full of vanity and of the most senseless superstition dare not allege these things to be false.
Not only is Christ very God of what is seen, but also of all that is unseen, working in the hidden places, where no man can fathom or understand, for the greatest purposes.  Being very God, He was sent into this world by the Almighty One, proving Himself: first, through mighty deeds which were not performed in secret but in the light of day, so that none could object; and second, by His teaching against which none could contend.

We see that the questions surrounding Jesus’ origin, life, and teaching are no different in 1700 years.  In order to undermine the force of sin, righteousness, and judgment, mankind seeks to undermine the clear reading of Scripture and mold it according to their own ideas of truth.  The best response is to affirm what our Lord said and did for a fallen, sinful world, with hopes that the opposition might respond of Jesus, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (Jn 7:46) and believe.

*  All quotes from Arnobius are taken from Against the Pagans, I.42.
†  Translated as “virtues” in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, the word virtutes is used in Scripture for miracles and is comparable to “by virtue of.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Pride of Office and Humility of Person

Great care is needed by those who are under-shepherds of God’s flock  to balance pride and humility.  The below, from a paper entitled “Duties of the Pastor: Expectations and Evaluations” recently presented by Pr. Bryan Wolfmueller, addressed that concern in an engaging way.

The vocation of pastor, then, is simple, but this does not mean that it is easy.  The Scriptures warn us of the difficulty.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.  (1 Timothy 3:1)

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  (James 3:1)

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.  (Hebrews 13:7)
I’ve wondered if the Lord has arranged the work of the pastor to ensure nobody is actually good at it.  Simply considering the way personalities work faces us up to this.  The guy who likes to spend hours concentrating on study of ancient texts normally does not like to stand in front of people and talk.  The guy who likes to sit in meetings and make sure everything is arranged just right normally does not like his evenings interrupted with emergencies.  A pastor is required to be an introvert and an extrovert, creative and disciplined, a good listener and a good speaker and a good writer, a logical thinker with great emotional empathy, holy and relatable.  In other words, no one is good at it.

Wrestling with this difficulty works itself out in a handful of different directions.  There is a pride of office and a humility of person that is often confused.  The pastor who understands rightly the great authority of his office becomes proud of his person, and subsequently receives any compliment or criticism into his person.  On the other hand, there is the pastor that knows his shortcomings and his inability to bear the office with the dignity it requires, and reacts by reducing the office to something more manageable.  Both are wrong.  The Scriptures would call us to a pride of office and humility of person, taking the teaching and work seriously, but not ourselves.

This is why St. Paul’s discussion of sufficiency comes up so often in the discussion of the work of the pastor:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.  For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Downward Spirals

When confronted with the consequences of sin, most people react in denial or avoidance—much the same way as when confronted with the actual committal leading to this point.  Regularly, what begins as a rationalization for acceptance of conduct in relation to other societal behavior turns to disbelief and blame when faced with the ultimate ends of the behavior.  When a group has been complicit, the reaction intensifies exponentially, making clear thinking even more problematic.  Over past millennia, governments and nations have fallen insisting that their course of action is proper for the citizenry, when in fact, it is the opposite.  Peer pressure to accept or abide government-sanctioned sin works as an added control of dissident thought—truth.

Illustration by Harry Clarke
Eventually, the national situation becomes dire and extreme measures are required.  In order to avoid the worst, authorities have turned to their great thinkers for counsel: “How can the inevitable be prevented?  What should we do?”  Like the doomed vessel of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the nation is dragged into a continual downward spiral.  Unwise counsel will say, “Weather the storm.  We have done so before and can again.”  Those folding fast to the ship of state and such counsel for safety are doomed.  The scripturally faithful leader is able to ascertain the true condition and necessary corrective via the more secure, but counter-intuitive, promises.

National leaders with a modicum of spiritual understanding will seek out the biblical counsel, however their intentions may be masked until counsel has been given.  The wise leader will takes heed, acknowledges the national error, and throws himself on God’s mercy.  The vast majority, however, reject the truth, accuse the counselor of lying for personal or political gain, and instead attempt political means, even through foreign relations, to evade the undoubted fallout.  Yet in the midst of this political maneuvering, national leaders keep the godly leader close at hand, as if he might act as a lifeboat or flotation device to whom they might cling in vain effort to pulled into the abyss.  Once again, these measures will fail.

Along the way, people will ask why the calamity has come with no end of analysis on how this could have been averted and where we go from here.  The man of God will make known the truth of how the people abandoned Almighty God for idols of their own making.  The surprising retort comes that the leaders knew full well what they did and are glad of it, because their actions formerly led to prosperity—the very thing the people wanted.  They appeal to the goodness of the conditions that bring about collapse.

Reader, you may be assuming that I have been writing of the current woes in the United States concerning the validation of homosexual marriage by the Supreme Court.  That is not the case, nor is this a look at the economic collapse happening with Greece.  Either would fit, as might any past regime.  Some might even wonder if the U.S. is “too big to fail.”  (Where have we heard that before?  2008 anyone?)  The U.S.S.R. is a stark example of super-power that can fall almost overnight.  My example nation is much older than those from modern history.  It comes from the pages of the Bible through the prophet Jeremiah (42-45).  The vestiges of the small, but mighty, nation of Israel had fallen in ruin because they had forsaken their God.  If any nation could claim Scripture as the basis for their government, this is it.  Their constitution was the Scriptures, yet as a people, they had determined that the “welfare” of the nation superseded their allegiance to the Lord of all Who called them to be a people.  They tried to use their privileged position as a hedge and considered themselves too big to fail.  Regardless of how large or small the nation, when the people do not have a regard for biblical principles in their rule, implosion is inevitable.*

Can national repentance stave off the collapse?  Perhaps, but let us think more locally and pray that those who name the name of Christ in my city or locale will seek the Lord, so that the gospel might go forth in clarity.  The Great Shepherd will gather His flock: He will build His church.

*  Lest you think I am advocating something I have not said, let me state that America is not Israel.  It never has been, nor ever will be.  We are not, nor ever have been, a Christian nation.  The Founding Fathers did have a healthy regard for the Bible, which colored their approach to our governing principles.  Also, 2 Chronicles 7:14 is not a promise for Americans to claim that God will heal the U.S.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Living in Light of That Day

If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  (1 Cor 3:14)

Recently, O blindness, I worshiped images produced from the furnace, gods made on anvils and by hammers, the bones of elephants, paintings, wreaths on aged trees.  Whenever I looked on an anointed stone daubed with olive oil, as if some power resided in it I worshiped it; I addressed myself to it and begged blessings from a senseless stock.  And these very gods of whose existence I had convinced myself, I treated with gross insults, when I believed them to be wood, stone, and bones, or imagined that they dwelt in the substance of such objects.  Now, having been led into the paths of truth by so great a Teacher, I know what all these things are, I entertain honorable thoughts concerning those which are worthy, I offer no insult to any divine name; and what is due to each, whether inferior or superior, I assign with clearly-defined gradations, and on distinct authority.  Is Christ, then, not to be regarded by us as God?  And is He, who in other respects may be deemed the very greatest, not to be honored with divine worship, from whom we have already received while alive so great gifts, and from whom we expect greater ones when “the Day” comes?

Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans I.39