Food for the Body of Christ

Eating is amazing. From the smells, textures, and tastes that contribute to its enjoyment (or lack thereof) to how the food becomes a part of the eater, the whole activity of eating is a wonder. The food we consume doesn’t remain what it was. Not only does it change form in our mouths, as it moves through our bodies it becomes our body. Food is transformed into us. Proteins and amino acids become a part of our muscles. Carbohydrates are transformed into glucose energizing the body. Fats absorb and transport essential vitamins throughout the body. What we eat becomes us.

Until it doesn’t. There are times when what we eat doesn’t agree with our bodies. The mouth eats and swallows, the stomach receives, but the food never becomes the body. When this happens the body rejects it and we vomit. The food is in the body but it is not the body (Leithart, Peter, Revelation 1–11, 202).

The Laodicean pastor and church were under the threat of being vomited out of Jesus’s body because they weren’t agreeable to the body (Rev 3.16). The body of Jesus couldn’t make use of this church as food. Their lukewarmness caused the body of Jesus to be nauseated and would eventually lead to convulsing that would expel them so that the body could remain healthy.

This image reflects a couple of images found in Scripture. One is that of the threat given to Israel concerning their residence in the promised land. God promised them that if they lived like the nations who were already vomited out of the land then they themselves would be vomited out of the land (Lev 18.24-28; 20.22). Jesus’s body, the church, is the promised land. Just like the land of promise of old, this land will not abide the presence of abominations. Jesus’s body will vomit out all of those who live contrary to and threaten the health of his body.

Jesus’s words to the pastor in Laodicea also reflect the fundamental nature of worship revealed in the offerings and sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus. Animals, wheat, and oils were all turned into smoke on the altar as food for God. God consumed the worshiper via these various offerings. The worshiper was food for God to be incorporated into his body. The worshiper would be transformed and become a part of the life of God.

But if the worshiper came living a life of sin without the intent of confessing and repenting, his worship would stink in God’s nostrils, and God would vomit him out. This is the relationship of the Laodicean pastor and church to Jesus. Their worship is nauseating. Their life as a church has nothing to contribute to health of Jesus’s body. They are in the body but not the body.

Jesus makes clear that the problem is the willful blindness of pastor and congregation to their true condition before him. They have lost the ability to discern, to judge, their condition because they are not listening to Jesus’s judgments. They have used another standard of judgment.

The lukewarm church is not merely the church that has lost some zeal (even though that is the case as well). The lukewarm church is the church that chooses its own judgments above the judgments of Jesus. It is the pastor and church that says, “I know Jesus said, ‘Don’t eat that fruit,’ but it looks good to me and will make me wise.” It is the pastor and church who say, “I know Jesus says that you are to deal with sin through discipline and with the potential of excommunication, but we say that this process is harsh.” It is the pastor and church who say, “I know Jesus says that all sex outside of the bonds of marriage between a man and woman are sin, but we say that these people were born this way and can’t be different.” It is the pastor and church who say, “I know Jesus has clear qualifications for who will lead his church, but we need good, savvy business men no matter their spiritual health.” It is the pastor and church who say, “I know Jesus said to forgive those who wrong you when they ask for forgiveness, but we say that we have the right to hold bitterness and keep bringing these matters up again and again.” It is the pastor and church who say, “I know Jesus says that we are to confront sin and confess our sins to one another, but we say, ‘Live and let live.’ If you will ignore my sin, then I’ll ignore yours.”

When you live making these judgments long enough, they become such a part of you that you no longer know your real need (Rev 3.17). You have lied to yourself for so long that it has become your reality. But it is not reality no matter how much you believe it.

The only answer is to come to Jesus and ask him to give you his eye salve so that you can see your need. He does this through the preached Word and faithful brothers and sisters who will, out love, wound you so that you can be healed and become a healthy part of the body of Christ.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Unqualified Praise: The Church in Philadelphia

When Jesus addresses the angel (pastor) of the church in Philadelphia (Rev 2.7-13), he has nothing negative to say about his ministry or the church. In a culturally influential city where position and power as measured by the world were important, the pastor had not capitulated to play the cultural games it would take to gain influence and avoid the haranguing of the “synagogue of Satan,” the unbelieving Jews. He had “little power” (Rev 2.8). But he had great faithfulness. Jesus has no charge to bring against him. There is praise without caveat.

We can understand better how Jesus deals with many of the other churches. “You have been steadfast in doctrine, but I have this against you: You have left your first love.” “You haven’t denied my name, but you have tolerated the teachings of Balaam or Jezebel.” We sympathize with this because we know ourselves and our churches. There is always something wrong. There is always a sin or sins that need to be addressed. We are sinners, and we know it. To have Jesus point to sin in our lives may be painful, but it is understandable.

But what happens when he doesn’t? What happens when he says, “Well done” with no caveat? What happens when he praises us through the voice of his servants with no rebuke? How comfortable are we with that?

Surely there was some sin in the pastor and/or church that could have been pointed out. No doubt there were struggles with sin in individual lives as well as the church as a whole. Jesus doesn’t believe that they need to be mentioned. Obviously the pastor and church were dealing with sin appropriately when it was coming up. They were struggling with them, confessing them, repenting of them, and pursuing righteousness. When that is happening, they are doing what needs to be done. Jesus is pleased.

But there are some of us who aren’t pleased with this. There always has to be something to pointed out and nit-picked. “Yeah, that man is faithful, but he’s still a sinner.” “That church is a good church, but remember that they are full of sinners.” If someone praises us for our faithfulness, we deflect it by qualification. “Thank you, but if you just knew me and all the sin in my heart, you probably wouldn’t be saying that.”

Why do we do that? Why is it so difficult to accept praise for our faithfulness, thank the person giving it, and move on? Maybe we’re scared of pride swelling up in our hearts. That’s understandable. However, one truth that we learn from Jesus’s address to the church at Philadelphia is that we need to accept his praise for our faithfulness without groveling. There are times that Jesus has nothing bad to say about us. If we are dealing with our sins appropriately as they occur and are pursuing righteousness, Jesus is pleased with us.

At times, I’m afraid, we view Jesus as a nit-picker. To keep us humble he must always be exposing some sin in our lives. And if a sin isn’t obvious to us, then we will feel guilty for not seeing any sin and, therefore, confess our blindness and pride as sins. There must always be something.

But there’s not. Are you faithfully dealing with your sin when it is exposed? Are you confessing it, getting things right with others when your sins have affected them? Are you listening to other godly people when they tell you that there are sins with which you need to deal? Are you pursuing what is righteous? Then Jesus says, “Well done;” no reservations, no caveats, no holding things back that he really wants to say. He is pleased with you. Accept it humbly, say, “Thank you,” and keep being faithful.

The Resurrection and the Bride

Early, on the first day of the week, a woman is alone in the garden, John tells us (John 20.1). Where did she come from?

Throughout his Gospel, John takes us through the old creation week in which Jesus is bringing the old creation to an end; not annihilating it, but transforming it through his own death and resurrection. John leads us to read his Gospel in terms of the creation week from the first when he starts with those familiar words, “In the beginning....” From there he takes us through the creation week that culminates in the presentation of the man on the sixth day of the week. The voice of God is heard through a strange medium, for it is Pilate who declares, “Behold the man!” (John 19.5).

The man is alone. It is not as if a bride doesn’t exist. But she is an old creation bride left dead in trespasses and sins because of her first husband, Adam. She needs re-creation.

It is not good for the man to be alone. God the Father will make a helper comparable to him. Through the hands of Roman soldiers the surgery begins to rip the flesh of the man in order that the bride might be created. The man enters death-sleep on the cross, and his side is opened up.

The Father continues his work in the burial of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take the body of Christ and anoint it with one hundred Roman pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19.39). Myrrh and aloes are the fragrance that glorify the garments of the king (Psalm 45.8). But he doesn’t keep these for himself alone. These are also the fragrances of the bride of the king (Song 4.14). Whatever Jesus is receiving he is sharing with his bride. The bride will be bone of Jesus’s bone and flesh of Jesus’s flesh, and she will also be fragrant of Jesus’s fragrance; she will be a sweet-smelling aroma before the Father just like Jesus.

The sleep continues through the Sabbath day. The man doesn’t awake on the sixth day as in the original creation. This death-sleep takes longer because of the necessity to deal with sin.

But now it is the first day of the week. The man has arisen from his death-sleep, and there is a woman in the garden. Mary Magdalene, the woman, is the consummate image of the bride that had to be re-created. She was the haunt of demons. Jesus had cleaned the house and put it in order, delivering her of seven demons (cf. Mark 16.9). However, without a complete re-creation, the demons that left her would have come back sevenfold had she not been remade through Jesus’s death and resurrection (cf. Matt 12.43-45). But the Father has made a new bride out of the old creation flesh of the man, Christ Jesus, dead and transformed. This bride will be transformed from glory to glory until she shares the full radiance of the glory of her husband.

The church of Jesus Christ is the bride of Christ. We are bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, sweet-smelling aroma of his sweet-smelling aroma. We were created through the death of our Lord, and we will one day share the fullness of his glory in our resurrection from the dead. We may not look all that great right now, but because we were created out of and share the flesh of Jesus, we carry in us the DNA, the genetic map of the Spirit, that guarantees that we will be beautiful in the end.

The Sleep of Death

Do you sometimes wonder how the Christian church can have such a prominent presence in our country yet our culture be in as bad a shape as it is? In a 2015 Gallup poll, 75% of Americans self-identified as Christians. That is not as high as the 80% in 2008, but it is still high. Of course, we discount many of these professions of faith, and rightfully so. However, the Christian church still looms large in our country. In towns and cities across our country there are multitudes of Christian churches of every different stripe, but we don’t see righteousness prevailing in these same towns and cities. Even in my own city, which boasts one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the world, has one of the largest evangelical churches in the country, has hundreds of smaller evangelical churches, and is occupied by a majority of Roman Catholics, we are not very Christian in the way we conduct our cultural business. What is up with that?

Could it be, that when we get down to the root of the matter, that those inside the church share some of the same fundamental views of the place of the church and faith in society as well as our personal lives? Could it be that any cultural engagement that we have had has become cultural assimilation; that is, we have the same basic understanding of where life should be centered (e.g., in what makes me the most happy and comfortable), that my personal faith shouldn’t interfere with work or government, that I exist primarily as a consumer and all things in which I participate must serve me in the way that I want to be served, that participation in the church is pretty much like participation in any other charitable organization in the world (i.e., it is an important but non-essential part of life)? Could it be that the church in America has little to no influence on the surrounding culture because we share too much culture with those outside the church? Are we slapping a fish symbol on the prevailing American culture and calling it the church?

The angel (pastor) and his church in Sardis seemed to have been lulled into a cultural assimilation through the comfort and wealth of the city of Sardis. They weren’t an overtly rebellious church, it seems, tolerating the likes of Jezebel as Thyatira did. The angel and church had become slothful. This sloth led to compromise, and this compromise led to an overgrown, unfruitful garden with the walls broken down (cf. Prov 24.30-34). Now, the angel and church have a name that they live, but they are dead (Rev 3.1). They are a nominal church. They bear the name of the living one, Jesus Christ, but they are dead.

Jesus tells us the nature of this death: he has not found their works full, complete, or mature before his God. Again, they weren’t tolerating Jezebel or the Nicolaitans. Their sin was much more subtle. They weren’t pressing to maturity. They weren’t cultivating the garden of the church to make it more fruitful. They weren’t investing the money Jesus left with them so that it would grow in interest (cp. Matt 25.14-30). They were satisfied with where they were.

Life was comfortable in Sardis. And comfort for Christians can be a greater danger than persecution. Comfort lulls us to sleep. Comfort can make us soft so that when the difficult times come ... and they will come ... we are tempted to do whatever it takes to maintain our comfort. The angel and church in Sardis did that. They refused to keep pressing forward in their spiritual disciplines and maturing. Instead, they refused to compromise their comfort, assimilated to the prevailing pagan culture, and soiled their baptismal garments. The name of Christ in which they were clothed in baptism (cf. Gal 3.27) was still discernable, but many were so soiled that Jesus considered them dead. They were Christians in name only.

Jesus calls the angel and church in Sardis to wake up; shake off the sleep, clear their heads, and repent. They need to realize what is going on and snap out of it. If they don’t, the consequences will be eternally horrifying.

As Christians in America we have the temptation of comfort. We can easily be lulled to sleep, assimilating to the church around us. We can share prevailing anti-Christian thinking without even knowing it. We, in the church, may rail against no-fault divorce marriages. However, we will share with the world the belief that marriage is primarily about personal fulfillment, which is the foundation for no-fault divorces. We (rightfully) protest abortion in our country. However, we will refuse the blessing of children in our marriages because we can’t afford them or because they are inconvenient, getting in the way of what we want to achieve. That is the same kind of thinking that promotes abortion. We are a part of a church and the world isn’t. However, we view the church like the world views other social or charitable organizations; important, but basically non-essential.

On and on I could go. What is needed to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2Cor 10.5). We need to think about where we might be being lulled to sleep, where are works are complete because we have compromised. Then we need to wake up and get about the business to which Jesus has called us: to bear his name faithfully in the world.

The Maturation of Sin

Sin doesn’t lie dormant. Ever. Whether in an individual or a society, sin is always fighting to grow like an aggressive, matastasizing cancer. Given the right environment it will grow to overtake the thinking and actions of people, completely consuming their individual and collective lives until there is nothing left. Paul describes this process in Romans 1.

The process begins with worshiping the creature over the eternally blessed Creator. Man rebels against the word of God, refusing to have God define who he is, what he is to believe about God, and how he is to relate to the world around him. Instead, he believes a lie. In man’s stubborn resistance to God’s word, God gives them over to “dishonor their bodies among themselves.” Generally, the dishonoring of the body is not treating the body with the dignity and respect that God bestowed upon it in his creation of us in his image. Whenever our bodies are used for that for which God did not create them, we are dishonoring our bodies. Paul is, most likely, speaking here about sexual immorality. He relates honoring the body and sexual purity speaking to the Thessalonians (1Thess 4.3-4). At this point, the sin is a distortion of the male + female relationship.

As idolatrous man gives himself over to idolatry, he is given over by God to dishonoring his body in male-female sexual relationships. As this becomes the normal course of life, God eventually gives man over to “dishonorable passions.” These dishonorable passions are same-sex sexual passions; women exchanging the Creator’s design for sexual relations in order to be with women, and men inflamed in their passions toward one another doing that which is shameful with other men. These are unions that are fruitless by design. They are unions of death; death to individuals and death to society.

The original design for man as image of God–male + female in covenant union–was to be “fruitful and multiply.” Paul’s tracing of sin and its effects reveals how sin destroys us in our fundamental identity as “man.” Lust has conceived and given birth to sin. Now sin, when it is finished, gives birth to death. The slope of sin leads man to a rejection of his fundamental identity as the image of God. When this happens, no sin is unthinkable. In fact, sin begins to make sense and is applauded (Rom 1.32). There is delight in death.

While we can see this progression working out in society around us, we too need to be concerned about the operation of sin in our own lives, our families, and our church. Sin is not something that is “out there somewhere.” Sin is in each of us. Though it is in remission for those in Christ, it is fighting to overtake us. We have a responsibility not to let it grow.

It can begin with small compromises; little idolatries, we might think. Sin then gains a foothold in our thinking, our passions, and in our habits. Before long we are justifying our sin because it makes sense to us even though the witness of Scripture and our brothers and sisters are telling us just the opposite.

How do we prevent this? We must be humbly submissive to the Scriptures themselves and to those who apply them to us. Pride is a good environment for sin to grow. We must be willing to listen to those who love us, who instruct us that we are going the wrong way. We must take the sin seriously, confess it, and move toward repentance, adjusting our thinking and our actions to line up with what God says. When we respond this way to sin, it is held at bay. On the flip side, we must be pursuing all that is good, righteous, and holy. As we do this, we don’t leave time or space for sin grow.

This is a fight that we will continue to have as long as we live. Sin will not rest. So, we must be ever vigilant and ready to deal with it ruthlessly.

From Fire To Fire: Thyatira

From our earliest days of life, we desire exaltation. We want more; more responsibility, more freedom, more position, more possessions. More. A toddler doesn’t want mom to feed him. He can do it himself. A little girl wants to use the sharp knives and stove that mom uses. A little boy wants to use the use the saw that dad uses. A teenager wants a car in order to go and come as he pleases. A man wants to be promoted and be able to provide better for his family. We want more.

Though this desire can be, and often is, twisted by sin, the fundamental desire in and of itself is God-given. God created us in his image to mature in his likeness. That is, we are created to grow up and be more like God. That means greater responsibility, higher position, more possessions, and more.

God created us to aspire to and grow into being rulers of his creation. However, if we are not faithful in the small things ... the first things ... then we can’t be trusted with the greater things. If your son is careless with the handsaw, you can’t trust him with the much more dangerous table saw. If your daughter has shown irresponsibility with forks, then you don’t put sharp knives into her hands. Faithfulness in the first things is rewarded with greater position and responsibility later.

Jesus desires to give the angel (pastor) and the faithful members of the church in Thyatira greater position. He promises them that he will grant them the authority that he himself has over the nations to shepherd them with a rod of iron (Rev 2.26-27). But anyone who is exalted to this position must have demonstrated that he is able to handle the responsibility. That means that there are some fundamentals that they need to be getting right. The angel, though commended for many good qualities, does have a flaw that he needs to correct so that he and the church can mature to this rule. The angel must cease tolerating the prophetess Jezebel, a woman who was leading people in the church into false worship.

Getting worship right is a fundamental. Who or what you worship reveals your greatest love. To put it another way, what you love is revealed by who or what you worship; what is central to your life, what determines the decisions you make. The angel in Thyatira is tolerating this woman Jezebel. In doing so, whatever else he is getting right, he is not handling this basic responsibility as he ought. Jesus reveals himself as the Son of God who has eyes of flaming fire and burnished bronze feet in order to instruct the angel in what needs to be done.

“Son of God” is a title that is given to David’s son, the king (2Sam 7.14). He is the one to whom the Father has committed authority over the nations (Ps 2). But to be exalted to this position, he had to humble himself and become obedient to death, even the death of the cross (Phil 2.6-11). He had to lay down his life in an act of worship. Now, he is the one in whom we offer ourselves in sacrifice in order that we might be exalted to rule with him.

The image of Jesus reveals this to all the churches in general in Revelation 1.14-15 and in particular to the angel of the church in Thyatira (Rev 2.18). Jesus’s feet of burnished bronze, as if they burned in a fire (Rev 1.15), is where faithful worship begins. His feet are the bronze altar in the courtyard of the Temple, the first step up God’s holy mountain into his presence. John fell at these feet as dead at first sight of the glorified Jesus (Rev 1.17). This is the beginning of exaltation. We must die at the fiery altar of Jesus’s feet.

But death is only the beginning. In the fire we ascend up through the body of Christ to be incorporated into the head of Christ. His head is presented as having white hair with fiery eyes in the midst of this cloud-like hair (Rev 1.14). His head is the glory cloud that has a constant fire that burns in it warming and guiding the faithful, discerning between good and evil, and purifying his people while consuming his enemies. His eyes are instruments of judgment, the means by which Jesus rules. This is where Jesus wants his faithful ones to be with him; he wants them to share his eyes.

In order to ascend to his eyes, we must begin at his feet. Before we can rule with him, we must worship with and in him. There are some things in us and the church as a whole that must be purified. Anytime something is purified there are elements that are consumed completely, elements that cannot ascend but must be discarded. For the church to ascend to rule with Christ, Jezebel and her children must be consumed at Jesus’s feet. Continued toleration corrupts the fundamentals of the church’s existence. If they can’t get this right, how then can they handle more responsibility?

It’s either Jezebel or Jesus. We can’t embrace both. Jezebel manifests herself in many ways, but she is after your heart no matter how she appears. She wants to capture your affections, your love, so that she can determine what is central to your life, how you make decisions; what you worship. Jezebel is whoever or whatever allures you away from ultimate allegiance to Christ. You know you are following her when what she wants you to do is more important than what Christ commands you to do. It may be that the world has promised you prestige, pleasure, and possessions in the present, but you must not have Christ and his church as central in your life. It’s okay to continue to go to worship, for example, when it doesn’t interfere with what Jezebel wants you to do, but Jezebel must be your primary love. She must have your affections. You must know that if you follow this Harlot Folly, Jezebel, you are going as an ox to the slaughter (Prov 7).

Jesus promises you, on the other hand, that if you reject Jezebel because he alone has your affections, though everything may not be pleasant in the present, you will eventually reign with him. You will have everything and more than you can imagine.

Intolerable Tolerance

If we are to live together as the people of God, longsuffering in love is a necessity (Eph 4.2). Longsuffering is the evidence that the Spirit is at work among us (Gal 5.22-23). The old English word longsuffering better reflects what Paul is saying than our English word patience. Patience is a little more docile. Longsuffering reflects the struggle we have at times to tolerate one another; to put up with the abrasive personalities, quirkiness, the aggravations of just being with other people, and even enduring their struggles with sin in their lives of repentance. We are called to “suffer long” with people in love. God calls us to a loving toleration in the church.

But there is a time when toleration becomes intolerable, when longsuffering can be suffered no longer. There is a time when longsuffering becomes a sin. When Jesus addresses the angel (the pastor) of the church in Pergamum, he deals with this sin.

The angel himself is faithful. He has held fast to Jesus’s name right in the throne room of Satan himself (Rev 2.13). Satan had established his temple, his throne room, in the midst of the capital city of Asia, Pergamum. There many of the Greek gods were worshiped, the imperial cult (i.e., Caesar worship) found its center, and the synagogues of Satan, the Jews, were established. Being the rival temple, the throne room of Jesus, the church, wasn’t an easy life in Pergamum. However, even after Antipas was killed as a token of what the satanic forces in Pergamum would do, this angel did not waver. Jesus praises him for his personal faithfulness.

But he is the pastor of the church, so his responsibility extends beyond personal faithfulness. He is responsible to maintain the covenant boundaries of the church, keeping the bride clean. He hadn’t. Instead, he had been sinfully longsuffering with those who held the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans (which seems to have been the same teaching).

The reference to Balaam takes us back to Numbers, toward the end of the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel. Aaron, the high priest, died. When this happened, all of the blood shed on the land that cried out for vengeance was avenged, and all of the manslayers who were held up in the cities of refuge were freed (cf. Num 35.25, 28). Israel was free to conquer. And conquer they did. They defeated three kings and were marching toward Moab and the Midianites. Balak, king of Moab, took notice and called the prophet Balaam, hiring him to curse Israel. When Balaam couldn’t curse Israel, he taught Balak how to get Israel to curse itself: send in Midianite women to sexually seduce the men and, through this, to worship idols (Num 22–25; 31.16). It worked. God plagued Israel, and that plague wasn’t stopped until Phineas, the priest, speared a fornicating couple through their bellies (Num 25.7-8).

Our high priest, Jesus, died, emptying the saints from the old covenant cities of refuge. The church was on the march tearing down strongholds, overturning cultures. The Caesar cult–Balak– worked with the Jews–Balaam–to put stumblingblocks before the church, to commit covenant infidelity. Some were saying that it wasn’t a problem to participate in the civic feasts that included fellowship with idols, to burn a little incense to Caesar, or to mouth the words, “Caesar is Lord.” If the angel doesn’t take care of this, the true Phineas, Jesus, will come with the sword of his mouth and fight against all the fornicators. There will be no space for repentance after this.

The angel was tolerating these people in the church; people who were leading others to perdition. While personally holding fast to the faith, not participating in these activities, his allowance of them in the congregation was culpable. It was intolerable toleration.

The pastor of a church has a great responsibility for the church as a whole in this regard. But the principle behind what Jesus says to the pastor applies to each individual in the congregation; namely, that my responsibility extends beyond me being personally faithful to the health and well-being of the entire church. None of us can take a live-and-let-live attitude in the church when it comes to the toleration of sinful leaven. We must love one another and Christ’s church as a whole enough to be impatient with impenitence.

There are times when our longsuffering and grace are nothing more than spiritual facades for a self-love that doesn’t want to do the uncomfortable work of actively loving others by confronting sin. When we refuse to do so, we put their lives in danger. The discomfort of confrontation is not the problem. Sin is the problem. Sin kills. Sin kills individuals and churches. To tolerate what Jesus doesn’t isn’t grace or patience. It is sin.

The answer is repentance (Rev 2.16). Repentance is not merely a clipping around the edges. Rather, it is understanding with the mind of Christ, seeing the way he sees things, sharing his affections, and changing our actions accordingly. In short, we must love one another in the church the way Jesus loves us. And his love doesn’t tolerate infidelity.

Death To Life

One of the longings of the Christian heart is to hear our Lord tell us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” We desire to feel the pleasure of the Lord’s approval of our work. On the heels of this approval, we anticipate reward: entering into the joy of our Lord. There is nothing wrong with that. God promises reward for faithfulness, so we should expect it and desire it.

But what happens when the Lord says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into more of the suffering and death of your Lord?” This is Jesus’s message to the angel of the church in Smyrna. The angel and church had stayed faithful through tribulation in which they experienced abject poverty (Rev 2.9). They had endured the blasphemy of the Satanic synagogue of the Jews. More than likely, this had been going on for several years. Day-in and day-out they were being squeezed by trouble, and it was costing them livelihoods and societal ostracization. Yet they were staying strong.

One might think that the Lord seeing all of this would say, “Alright. Enough is enough. You have been faithful through all of this, so I am coming to relieve your suffering. Well done! Enter the joy of your Lord.” Instead he comes and, following his commendation of their perseverance, he says, “Do not fear the things you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil will throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death....” “Suffer? Prison? Be faithful unto death? That’s the immediate future and what I get for enduring what I have endured already? Jesus, you’re telling me to buckle up because it’s about to get worse?”

Not a very cheerful message to preach to a suffering and hurting congregation. But it was reality. In his time before the cross, Jesus told his disciples that they would endure tribulation. These were the birth pains of the new creation (Matt 24.8). In order for the new creation established in Jesus’s death and resurrection, the church will have to follow her Lord in death. The blood of the saints will be the seeds of the new creation. They must desire this as much as our Lord does and be willing to give as he did.

This is the way history works. Jesus told them so when he introduced himself to the church. He is the first and the last, the one who was dead and has come back to life. The two descriptions work together. Being the first and the last means that Jesus is not a mere historical figure (though he is a historical figure). Being the first and last means that he is the source and destination of all of history. History is because he is. All things were created by him, and all things are moving to culminate in him (Rom 11.36; Eph 1.10). In him all things consist (Col 1.17).

This history has a shape determined by the one who is the first and last. The way history moves–first and last–is shaped by the one who died and came back to life. History’s shape is death then life. More specifically, die with Christ and then live with Christ. We don’t live and then die. We die and then live. Those who seek to hold on to their lives will lose them in the second death. Those who lose their lives with and for Christ will live, not fearing the second death (cf. Rev 2.11; also Matt 16.25).

The choice is death or death. We will all die. When and with whom you die will determine whether not it culminates in life or a second death.

Jesus doesn’t always reward faithful pastors and churches immediately with peace and prosperity. He doesn’t always rescue us from the death that we face. Sometimes he says, “Buckle up! It is about to get worse.” But he does promise us that all of this is only for “ten days,” a relatively short time of testing compared to what is to come. As we stay faithful through testing and death, the reward of the crown of life is coming (Rev 2.10).

We may not face the same situation as the Smyrnan Christians or even many of our family members around the world who live under the threat of physical torture and death. We may be tested by death in other ways. What are the things that we are holding on to that we think, “I will never let go of this. I will never let this die.”? Everything outside of Christ about which we have this attitude is an idol. You are looking to find life in the creation and not the Creator. You’re wanting to live now and die later. Whether whatever that thing is goes away or not, you must die to it so that you can find life. Jesus may let you keep it, or he may take it way. Yours is to accept the death that Christ demands of all those who follow him. When follow him in death, you will certainly follow him in life.

First Love

What makes a church a church? Is it the faithful proclamation of the Word, the correct administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of church discipline? Yes, but there is something even more fundamental to the existence of a church than these. There is a way to be technically correct in all three of these areas of church life and still fall short of being a viable church in the eyes of the Lord of the church.

The most fundamental aspect of the church’s being the church is love. It is obedience to the great commandment to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is obedience to the new commandment that we love one another as Christ has loved us. Only with this foundation will any church continue to exist as a church of Jesus Christ. You can’t have love without the truth, but you can have truth without love.

The church in Ephesus as addressed in Revelation 2 learned this lesson from the mouth of our Lord himself.

The apostle John was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day (Rev 1.10). That is, he was in a worship service. Jesus revealed himself to John there on the isle of Patmos, giving him a glimpse into what happens in the worship of the church every Lord’s Day. Jesus came in the “Spirit of the day” to walk in this garden of fiery trees–the lampstands–in order to inspect the “Adams,” the angels of the churches, he left to tend and guard his garden (cp. Gen 2.15; 3.8). He gives John a message to send to each one of these Adams in the seven churches that declares his evaluation of them.

The first of these messages is to the church in Ephesus. The Ephesian church was, in many ways, a fine church. Jesus praises them for a number of fine qualities. This praise is not faint or setting them up for the big negative that is to come. They are doing many things well, and Jesus commends them for it.

The angel and congregation in Ephesus are tireless in their labor, not growing weary in well doing (Rev 2.2, 3). They have endured under a tremendous load of cultural pressure to forsake loyalty to the gospel (Rev 2.3). And they are intolerant of evil and false doctrine (Rev 2.2). They hate the same things Jesus hates: the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Rev 2.6). Jesus loves their intolerance of all things evil. They are fighting the culture wars. They are cutting off impenitent sin when it rears its head in the church. They are maintaining doctrinal purity.

But they have one potentially fatal flaw: they have forsaken their first love. This first love is not an immature infatuation. However, it does involve our deepest affections. This love is a love for God and one another that captures the deepest affections of our hearts and, therefore, dictates the choices we make. It is a covenantal commitment to God and one another in the church.

The Ephesians, to one degree or another, have become spiritual savages. They are at war all of the time. It is easy to slip into this when there are so many wars to fight. Their hatred grew, and they were good at it ... and praised by Jesus for it. Hatred of evil may have become their primary identity as pastor and church. They are good haters. But in all of their commendable hatred, they have forgotten how to be good lovers.

Maybe they have fallen from the simple joys of enjoying one another. Maybe they only know how to use doctrine as a weapon and not as instrument of healing. Maybe they are so consumed with fighting evil that they have forgotten that they are supposed to be loving and pursuing what is beautiful. Maybe in their common hatred of evil and false doctrine, they have various opinions on how these wars need to be fought, and it has put them at odds with one another.

We don’t exactly know what the particular situation was with Ephesus. They knew. When the angel of the church delivered this message, they would know exactly what he was talking about, I’m sure. But it is vague to us. Or is it? Do we hear what the Spirit is saying to the church? In what ways have we, as a church, left our first love, the fundamentals of being a church (if we have)? Jesus leaves the accusation of forsaking the first love and the admonition to remember, repent, and return to the first love open for each of his churches to figure out for themselves if and where this is true about themselves.

Not having this first love in the church is serious to Jesus. If this isn’t corrected, he will remove their lampstand. That is, the church will no longer exist. The lampstand will not be shining the light of Christ, and, therefore, will not be a faithful witness. They can have all of those other things right for which Jesus praises them, but if they don’t have love, they will be nothing.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and Lent

In the past I have written emails now and again to explain why we do what we do on occasion, especially when we approach certain days in the liturgical year. We are approaching Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, and we have several new families who are coming into this possibly as something totally new. So, I thought I’d write a brief explanation of why we observe these days. (For a fuller explanation of why we recognize the Church Year at all, you may go to our website and look on the Pastor’s Page under “Church/Liturgical Year.”)

Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday are both related to the season of Lent. (Lent, by the way, simply means “Spring.”) Lent is forty days previous to Easter Sunday. The forty day/year period in the Bible is quite frequent and significant. It is a time, generally speaking, of preparation for entering into a new age; an age in which the promises of God will be realized. Moving into that time is a time of testing. This testing is reflected preeminently in our Lord Jesus and his testing in the wilderness when he fulfills all the whole significance of the “40" time period. He goes through a time of testing so that, after passing the test, he may come into the promise of the Father. The church year follows the life of Christ. One of the reasons for the observance of Lent is to shape the church into Christ’s image. So, we take the time to focus on sin, repentance, and look forward to the future promises of God. We, like Christ, take upon ourselves, in some form or fashion, a form of death (e.g., fasting) for the sake of others just as Christ took death upon himself for us. Of course, living this cruciform life is to take place year round. This is simply a time of special focus. Its observance is not obligatory like the call to come around the Lord’s Table on the Lord’s Day. We understand this as helpful and wise; a means to help focus our hearts and minds.

Shrove Tuesday celebration (also called Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday”) arose in association with Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Traditionally, the fast in Lent involved fasting from meat. This came to include all sorts of related products as well (e.g., milk & eggs). So, the Tuesday before Lent was an exercise in getting rid of all those things. Hence, the pancakes. (Incidentally, this seems also to be the reason why eggs became associated with Easter. Chickens kept on laying them all the way through Lent. There were many eggs at the end of Lent. What else would you do with them beside have a great time with them!) While some of the initial reasons for Shrove Tuesday are not necessarily relevant for us, it is another good excuse to have a get together to eat and have a good time. Also, it provides a stark contrast to get us in the rhythm of the season when we have our service of ashes on Wednesday.

Our Ash Wednesday service is focused on confession and repentance of sin. We do apply ashes to all those who wish to participate. You may come to the service and not have the ashes applied. That is fine. But we do find ashes associated with repentance in the Bible. It is a tangible reminder of our sin and the result of it: death. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” is what you will hear when the ashes are applied. We do this to remember that we are deserving of death because of our sin, but we also look toward the hope of the resurrection. Living right now between the first and last resurrection, we live in this tension of having already been raised with Christ but not yet raised with Christ. One way we try to keep ourselves grounded in that reality, not jumping ahead thinking that we have arrived at God’s final promise, is to have this service of ashes.

Also, during our Ash Wednesday service, we have a special alms collection. These alms will go to the deacons' fund for mercy ministry projects. The giving of alms is associated with the spirit of Lent: it is the giving ourselves for the lives of others. We tangibly express this through the giving of alms.

If you have not participated in these services in the past, I encourage you to do so. I pray that it will be helpful to you in your Christian walk as our attentions are sharply focused. But again, if you are uncomfortable with aspects of the service like the ashes, the rest of the service can still be of benefit. I also encourage you to come to both if at all possible. Shrove Tuesday is fun, and everybody likes it. Ash Wednesday is not so fun. But the contrast between the two is the importance of having both.

I hope this is helpful. I look forward to moving through these seasons once again with all of you.


Church Inspection

The world in which they lived–the world that had existed in this form for almost seven hundred years but was itself the zenith of the world as it had existed from the beginning of time–this world was about to end. The entire created order was being shaken. The epicenter of this quaking cosmos was Jerusalem and its temple. Tribulations would accompany this transformation of the world order, and God’s people would have to endure them, especially as the hatred of those who didn’t want to let go of the old order was directed toward them, God’s new creation.

Jesus prepares his servants for this tribulation in his revelation to John on the isle of Patmos (Rev 1.1). Homing in on seven churches in Asia, Jesus speaks by the Spirit to all the churches everywhere (cf. e.g., 2.7). The world as they know it is about to be completely changed, and they need to be ready for it.

Jesus has established his churches in the world as a new temple. They are seven golden lampstands (Rev 1.20) among which he comes to walk as a priest whose responsibility it is to trim the lamps to keep them burning. In the midst of the darkness that is about to come upon the world, these churches need to shine as his light. The only way to shine as they ought is for judgment to begin at the house of God (1Pt 4.17). As a good priest, he comes to inspect the temple of God .in order to encourage, rebuke, admonish, and exhort.

His walking among the golden lampstands looks back even further to life in the Garden of Eden. The lampstands in the tabernacle and temple were stylized almond trees (cf. Ex 25.33). Jesus is not merely a priest in the temple, he is YHWH who is coming in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day to call to account his “Adams,” the angels or pastors of the churches (cf. Gen 3.8; Rev 1.10). He has left them with a task to tend and guard the garden-bride, to cultivate holiness in her, and now he is coming to inspect the work in order to commend or rebuke.

All of this is necessary for them to overcome in the coming troubles. They must know the weaknesses and sins that they have in their churches in order to deal with them so that they don’t fall with the rest of the world. They must know where they are doing well so that they can maintain and strengthen those areas.

The fundamental posture that the angels and the churches they pastor must take before the exalted Jesus is one of humility. Whatever Jesus reveals, whether good or bad, they must accept and, consequently, conform their lives together accordingly. Some things he reveals will be uncomfortable. They may not want to deal with this person in this church because he is influential. Jezebel in Thyatira might be a pretty powerful person in the church. Their doing what Jesus says may upset all the wrong people and make life difficult.

Then there is the matter of taking seriously what Jesus takes seriously. When he tells you that you are doing well in hating all the right things and dealing with obvious sin in the church but that you have left your first love, you might be tempted to say, “Is that really that big of a deal?”

There are many things Jesus says to deal with when he makes them aware of them. He doesn’t say, “Be patient with them.” When Jesus reveals them and tells you to deal with them, the time of patience has come to an end. At this point it is, “Deal with them or die.” He promises death to those in Thyatira and the removal of the lampstand in Ephesus.

Jesus is still exposing us in our churches. He is exposing the angels of the churches and the churches they pastor through his word. We must be ready to humbly receive his exposing of us when we are faithful as well as when we are in sin. We need to be encouraged when he tells us, “Well done.” But we also need to be ready and quick not to hide ourselves from his gaze when he is exposing sin. We can’t ignore it and think that it will just go away. We must have the courage of faith–faith that Jesus wants what is best for us as his church–to deal with whatever sins he exposes.

Let us then have the courage of faith to ask him to expose whatever needs to be exposed in us in order that we might be what he has called us to be.

Theology To Doxology

In all of your meditations and contemplations, have you ever been so overwhelmed by who God is and what he has done that there really are no adequate words? Maybe you experience a sudden change of events in which God surprises you with something good after a long, dark night of the soul. Maybe the Spirit opens your mind to the Scriptures in a new and fresh way to see the grace of God. Maybe you are overwhelmed with the beauty of God and his plan; you are like a man who reaches the peak of a mountain and feels the exhilaration, joy, and the smallness of who he is but enjoys the majesty in which he is now immersed.

The only thing to do in times like these is to break out in praise. This is where Paul finds himself at the end of a long exposition of the revelation of the gospel of Christ Jesus at the end of chapter 11 in his letter to the Roman church:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?”  “Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?” For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

The first eleven chapters of Romans contains profound and deep theology that has been the object of study in the church for nearly two millennia. Tomes have been written mining the biblical teachings of God, sin, and salvation from the book of Romans. Scholarly debates continue over the overall interpretation of Romans as well as the implications of words and phrases contained therein.

It can be easy to get lost in all of this and begin to think that what Paul writes is a playground for professional theologians. But if our reading of Romans doesn’t lead the entire church–professional and lay theologian, ordained ministers as well as non-ordained Christians–right to where Paul is in praise at this point in the letter, then we have not read Romans correctly.

Theology’s end is doxology. Loving delight in worship is the goal of all knowledge of God. Whether in Sunday School or seminary, whether in private reading or public study of the Scriptures, if our knowledge doesn’t lead us to praise, then we haven’t really understood God.

I am quite aware that many of us pastors can turn orthodoxy into orthodusty in our theologically substantive teachings. Some of us like the intellectual stimulation and the thought of being right and, in course, can bore people to death. Shame on us if we do not lead our people through the depths of a letter like Romans and give our people every reason to explode in praise.

For Pastor Paul this is not a matter of cold, dead philosophical theology. It is not merely some mind game or just a laying out of the facts. This is the revelation of a personal God whose purpose in the gospel is revealed to create a unified family and a beautiful place in which they can all dwell together; a place of love, happiness, and wonder. Paul has worked through the plan of God (i.e., theology) like a musician playing through or listening to a great work of music that takes you here and there on a journey that involves the whole person; the tones and rhythms physically penetrating the body, the intricacies of the music stimulating the mind, the beauty of the music overwhelming the emotions. Then, at the end of this work of art, you feel a deep sense of joy, satisfaction, relief, exhilaration, refreshment, longing, and hope. At the end, all he can do is explode in grateful praise of the Musician and his music.

So it should be with us as we listen, read, and work through the deep wisdom and knowledge of God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the truths of God penetrate and transform our minds, doxology is the reflex reaction.

A Baptism Exhortation

  In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1.9-11)

Imagine with me that at today’s baptism something spectacular happens. After I exhort Nathan, Brittanie, and the church concerning baptism, I begin to make my way back to the font. When I arrive there, all of the sudden, the sky is ripped in two, the roof of the building is pulled back, and Jesus himself takes Liam in his arms and pours the water over his head. The Spirit of God descends through the rent sky and roof and lands on Liam. Then a voice that sounds like thunder clearly speaks, “This is my beloved Son in whom my soul delights.”

I dare say it would be a baptism to remember; a baptism that Nathan, Brittanie, and the rest of us would speak of for years to come, telling Liam as well as others about it.

More than likely we will not see this happen. (But you never can tell what God might do!) However, what happened at Jesus’s baptism will happen today at this baptism just as it does at every baptism. Everyone baptized into the Triune name shares the baptism of Jesus. We are all baptized into his baptism. One of the reasons the events of Jesus’s baptism are recorded for us is so that we will understand just what is going on in our baptisms.

Though it is a simple event, the cosmic order is being shaken. Heaven, the throne room of God, which has been opened up by Christ Jesus, is being joined to earth in this little baby. Heaven welcomes him as a full citizen; one who has all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of a citizen in good standing. He is not a half-member (as if God has some half-way covenant!) waiting until one day when he is smart enough so that God will fully accept him. God is his God and he is God’s child, and he should be treated as such by the church.

Because baptism is into Christ Jesus where heaven and earth are united, Liam, being joined to Christ in baptism, is now just another place where God’s plan to unite heaven and earth is being accomplished. Today we see God’s plan of new creation advancing as he reshapes the church and the world by addition of the gift he has given to Nathan and Brittanie. Today, in this seemingly uneventful act, Liam is receiving the gift of the Spirit because he participating in the baptism of Christ’s body, the church. Today, the Father is thundering, “This is my beloved Son in whom my soul delights.”

All of these things are happening today, and we are called to see them through the eyes of faith. Jesus’s baptism is Liam’s baptism.

But just as Jesus’s baptism wasn’t the goal of his ministry but the beginning, so it is with Liam and all who are baptized. Baptism is a call to mission; a mission to be driven into the wilderness by the Spirit given in baptism to test faith in what was declared in baptism concerning the Father’s declaration of being his Son; a mission to take up a cross and follow Christ; a mission to move through death to resurrection. Baptism is the beginning of a life that is to be lived by faith in what God has declared in baptism.

Liam can’t do this on his own. This is one reason he is being baptized into the body of Christ, the church. He is one member among many who needs encouragement and to be taught to observe everything that Christ has commanded. God has appointed Nathan and Brittanie as his special ministers in the church and for the church in Liam’s life. While the entire church has responsibilities to Liam, God gives a special ordination, if you will, to the parents of the child.

Nathan and Brittanie, remember, Liam is a gift to you and does not ultimately belong to you. He belongs to God our Father. You are stewards, and God requires of stewards faithfulness to the commission he has given. Love him through training his heart through the disciplines of our faith. Teach him to enjoy our God and his gifts; worship with him, laugh with him, cry with him, hug him, spank him, instruct him always aiming for his heart to love Jesus with everything. Wherever God may take you in the future, always be a part of a good church and teach him to love Christ’s church and center his life there.

Church, let us recognize what God says about Liam this morning in baptism and treat him as a member of the family. And let us encourage Nathan and Brittanie in their responsibilities so that we may all be found faithful.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Apostasy Happens ... Slowly

Apostasy happens. Various schools of thought within the church have different explanations concerning the nature of apostasy, but the fact that it happens is undeniable. Judas, chosen by Jesus himself to be an apostle, is the paragon of apostasy. The ability to apostatize from the faith is assumed in Jesus’s exhortations in John 15 for the disciples to continue to abide in him. Jesus also alluded to apostasy in his parable of the soils when he spoke of those who receive the word of the kingdom with joy, endure for a while, but then fall away when tribulation and persecution come (Matt 13.20-21). The writer of Hebrews assumes the ability of apostasy when he exhorts the Jewish Christians not to do so throughout his letter. The possibility of apostasy also undergirds Paul’s exhortation to the Gentiles in Romans 11 not to be proud but fear, for if God did not spare the natural branches (i.e., the Jews), neither will he spare them.

Apostasy happens. Explain it however you will, but it happens. There are people who are a part of the people of God, people who may even be excited about their faith (as in Jesus’s parable), but as time passes they become the enemies of Christ. They forsake the faith and are the objects of God’s wrath.

The threat of apostasy is repulsive to some in the church. We believe in the “security of the believer.” Well, I do to ... as long as it is understood biblically. Our salvation is secure in Christ alone and is received only by faith. As long as you are loyal to Christ, your salvation is secure. The security of your salvation doesn’t come through a magic “sinner’s prayer” or even baptism. Just because you wrote the date of your conversion down in the fly leaf of your Bible doesn’t mean that your salvation is secure no matter what. Salvation is by faith. Salvation is by faith in Christ that perseveres to the end. Persevering faith is the only faith that saves. Anything less is, by definition, not saving faith.

There are many mysteries about apostasy that we may never understand, but we are given warnings and exhortations concerning apostasy that we must heed. We are instructed all through the Scriptures in how to avoid apostasy: continue in the faith; continue to be loyal to Jesus.

Apostasy doesn’t sneak up on you and grab you in your sleep one night. Apostasy is generally a process. It is like leaven that slowly grows, eventually affecting the whole lump of dough. When we see this sinful leaven in our lives, we must take all necessary measures to cut out the old leaven. This is why we must be careful on a daily basis to maintain the disciplines of the faith, cultivating the gifts God has given us. We must not neglect consistent worship and fellowship with the saints from whom we receive encouragement (Heb 3.13; 10.24-25). Confession of sin and pursuing what is good and lovely are disciplines that keep the old leaven at bay.

Few who apostatize intend to do so from the beginning. It happens slowly with a little neglect of prayer over here because I am too busy. “What does it hurt to take a little time with the family and stay away from worship every once-in-a-while?” The thorns of persecution really do not affect us too much in this country. The thorns take a different shape: leisure, fun, and distractions. Fellowshipping with the church as central to my and my family’s life may be important on a list of priorities, but it is not central. When the church is not central, then the things that are more fun to us easily take us away from our lifeline of strength and slowly choke out the faith. We never intend it to happen, but it does; slowly, methodically eating away at our lives until one day we don’t care anymore. We don’t see any use in all of this “religion stuff.”

Guard your hearts. Continue to walk in the faith, maintaining the disciplines of the faith. As you do these things, you will never fall.

Jesus’ Baptism and Ours

If we would not be too proud to admit it, many of us American Protestants are scared of water. Whenever people start talking about what happens in baptism instead of what doesn’t happen in baptism, many of us start twisting in our seats. Images of superstitious priest-craft and mechanical guarantees of salvation start to swirl through our heads, and we have violent reactions like any good Protestant.

Some of us have seen people presume upon God because they have been baptized. That kind of abuse of baptism has caused us to go to the opposite extreme and reject any effect of baptism at all. Besides that, we know that God wouldn’t use water on our bodies to do anything substantive in regards to our salvation. That all happens directly by the Holy Spirit without any sort of means.

Fears about presumption are real and many times well-grounded. People abuse good things all the time. But abuse of a good thing doesn’t make a good thing a bad thing. Abuse only reveals the wickedness of those who abuse good things. So, we don’t need to throw out the baby with the baptismal waters. And to say that God surely wouldn’t use anything material to effect something “spiritual” would be like saying that God couldn’t use a rod, a stick, to split a sea, use a man and woman to create a being that will live forever, or use preaching of a sinful man to create saving faith.

There is no need to be afraid of water. Jesus went through the water first so that we could follow him and learn what God says about us when he applies the waters of baptism to us. We are, after all, baptized into Christ (Rom 6.1-4), and, therefore, his baptism is our baptism.

So, what do we learn about our baptism from Jesus’ baptism as recorded in the Gospels?

1. Baptism is a Trinitarian event.

At Jesus’ baptism the whole Trinitarian family was participating. The Father was speaking. The Spirit was descending. The Son was receiving. Being baptized in union with Christ means that we join the family. Our baptism is into the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (Matt 28.19) means that we now share the family name.

2. Baptism gives access to the heaven.

When Jesus was baptized the heavens were opened. Access to the throne of heaven was granted to Jesus, and, in him, we have access to the heavenly throne room as well (Heb 4.16). Our baptism calls us into a life of prayer with the people of God.

3. Baptism means that we have received the gift of the Spirit.

The Spirit of God descended upon Jesus’ body at the River Jordan. This baptism was given to his body, the church, at Pentecost. Anyone entering the body of Christ, the church, receives the gift of the Spirit, uniting us in a bond of love with the Father, the Son, and with the rest of the members of the body of Christ.

4. Baptism is a declaration of sonship.

At baptism God declares Jesus to be his beloved son in whom he is well-pleased. In Christ Jesus we are declared sons of God in whom the Father delights. The Father doesn’t merely tolerate you, he delights in you. You are his beloved child.

5. Baptism is the declaration of God about us, not our declaration about God.

God is speaking in baptism, and we listen. We passively receive what God says. The word of God about is determines our identity. It is not what we think about ourselves, but what God says about us that matters. Ours is to receive by faith what God said.

6. Baptism is an act of deliverance.

The imagery of Jesus’ baptism being in the River Jordan as well as the Spirit resting on him in the form of a dove point to two distinct, yet related, events. The Spirit resting upon Jesus in the form of a dove looks back to the time God delivered Noah, his family, and the animals through the flood waters into a new creation (which was a baptism according to Peter; 1Pet 3.20-21). Passing through the Jordan looks back to the time when Israel entered into the Promised Land. Our baptism in Christ means that we have entered into a new creation; namely, the church. You and I are no longer of the world that stands in opposition to God.

7. Baptism is a calling to mission.

To be the Son of God was not a static position of privilege for Jesus. Being the Son meant that he had a mission as the last Adam to take dominion of the world through his death, resurrection, ascension, and continuing reign. Being baptized into Christ means that we share that mission with him.

So, don’t be scared of the water. Receive God’s watery word by faith.

God’s Chief End For Man: Glorification

What is God’s chief end for man? To glorify man and enjoy him forever. This is not quite the catechism question we are used to hearing, but it is just as true as the one with which we are familiar. God created man for glory, and he himself would bestow that glory on the man. In the incarnation of the eternal Word we see God’s intention for man realized: glorified flesh. John tells us that “the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1.14) We behold the glory of God in flesh, the flesh of man.

The Hebrew word for “glory” speaks about something that is weighty. Glory is heavy. Glory is the regal robe and crown of the king that sits heavy on his body making him a sight to behold while also reminding him of the weightiness of his responsibility. Glory is the vestments of the high priest in Israel by which he reflects the beauty of God and his people while also carrying the tremendous responsibility to God and for his people. Wherever God adds weight to our lives through privilege and responsibility, he is glorifying us.

God gave man his glory in measure from the beginning when he created man in his image, crowning him with glory and honor, and giving him dominion over the creation (Ps 8). Man as flesh was created with the capacity to bear the weight of the glory of God. God would not put the full weight of glory on man in his infancy, but man would mature and be transformed so that he would move from glory to glory (2Cor 3.18), slowly growing stronger and wiser so that he could handle this glory. Because of sin, this growth in glory was short-circuited. Man sinned and fell short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23). In sin man cannot attain to that purpose of glory for which God created him.

When the Word was made flesh, the intention was that God would glorify fleshly man as he intended all along. In flesh the eternal Word revealed the goodness of God’s creation and the process of maturity that he intended for man. Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin woman, was given birth, and then matured through childhood on to adulthood. Jesus moved from glory to glory until he was glorified in the cross, resurrection, ascension, and coronation. He did all of this in the flesh. God made flesh to be glorified. The Incarnation of the eternal Word not only reveals this truth but is the means by which our flesh is glorified. United to the glorified man, Christ Jesus, our bodies are glorified.

The Incarnation is the validation of our fleshly existence. Yes, we learn that we must be delivered from the sin that plagues our flesh, but we are not delivered from our flesh. Our flesh, like the flesh of Jesus, is transformed. When Jesus is raised from the dead, he tells his disciples that a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones as he has (Lk 24.39). In the man Christ Jesus we see God’s intention for our flesh: transformed, glorified flesh.

It is for this reason that what you do in your body matters. In fact, we will, one day, stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of the deeds done in our bodies, whether they be good or evil (2Cor 5.10). Our bodies–these flesh and bone bodies–are members of Christ’s body and, therefore, can’t be used to join harlots to the body of Christ (1Cor 6.15-20). In baptism your physical body is washed with water, joining you to the body of Christ, the church. In the Lord’s Supper you eat and drink bread and wine with your fleshly body communing with the living God. Your body matters. Because of this, the members of your body must be presented to God as instruments of righteousness (Rom 6.13).

As you present your body and all of its members as instruments of righteousness to God, those works that you do with your body are meaningful. We are not doing good for goodness’ sake. We are doing good because it is the glory for which we were created. As God adds the weight of responsibility to us through friendships, marriage, children, job responsibilities, and relationships in the church, he is glorifying us. We are to answer the call to glory by accepting the weight of glory and responding to it in faith, looking to our God for strength to bear up under the weight.

The eternal Word became flesh so that our flesh could be glorified.

Family Matters

“Peace on earth.” This was the proclamation of the angels when they announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds (Luke 2.14). “Peace on earth.” The promise of salvation in the Christ was not escape from the earth, but rather its rescue from the bondage of sin and its rearrangement under the lordship of Jesus. The eternal Son became a man, not so that we could leave this earth, but so that the earth would become everything that God intended it to become.

Creation matters to God. The way he created the world and his purposes for the world have not been abandoned with the incarnation. In the incarnation of the eternal Son, God has affirmed his love for the creation and his purposes for it. Creation is not being abandoned but rescued and glorified.

One important piece of God’s creation is the human family. God created the family with a mission. That mission was to take dominion of the earth in order to make it a fruitful and beautiful house in which God and man would dwell together. But sin twisted the family and its purposes, decimating family relationships and, thus, the mission of the family. Children born to parents were now “thorns and thistles” instead of “olive shoots” (cp. Psalm 128); they would be a scourge to the earth instead of developing it into a beautiful garden-city.

However, God did not leave the family in such a state. Where sin abounded grace did much more abound. Where sin distorted the family and its purpose, God rescued it and glorified it. He made promises to human families that would result in the family relating to one another, God, and the rest of creation the way he intended.

God has not forsaken his promises. He remembers every baptism. He knows every name. Yes, he visits the iniquity of fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate him, but he shows mercy to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments (Exod 20.4-6). God gives grace to families because creation matters to God.

The New Covenant in Christ didn’t change this. Where sin abounded in the old creation, grace did much more abound in the new creation. Families aren’t forgotten by God. Indeed, the promises given to them are fulfilled in Christ. Families are being made what God intended them to be all along.

Many of us may not come from faithful Christian homes. Our parents may have been nominal at best or out-right obstinate toward God at worst. Some of us, if we look back a few generations, will find that we had some faithful forefathers. After a few generations of visiting the iniquities of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations, God is revisiting our family in grace in our generation. For others, our family may be the first generation of Christians we can find in our family line.

Wherever God’s grace has visited us in our family history, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the grace of God. God has given you privileges to be in or have Christian families. Don’t squander the privilege.

Sometimes we can become fat and happy with the blessings God gives us and forget that we need to maintain faithfulness. It becomes easy to begin presuming upon God’s grace as if it will always be there for my blessing no matter how I respond to God. It is tempting when we are enjoying prosperity of some kind–many times the fruit of those who have gone before us–to neglect the disciplines of grace that keep our hearts and minds in the right place. Our fathers and mothers had their faith developed through times of trial, sometimes coming from deep lifestyles of sin or struggling with all sorts of external pressures. They became strong in the faith through these things. They gave us a better life because of all that they went through. We can become ungrateful and begin to take the disciplines of the faith in a more casual way. As Cotton Mather once said, “Religion begat prosperity and the daughter ate the mother.” The blessings God gives us can become idols that begin steal our love. We must be careful to maintain the disciplines of grace, shaping our hearts and minds to love our God.

Your family matters to God. He has given you grace. Don’t presume upon his grace. Continue to discipline yourself and your family in whole-hearted love for God.

God cares about our families. May we share his concern.

Patient Reading

We Americans tend to be an impatient lot. (I’m sure other cultures have their own problems with impatience, but I am writing as an American.) Patiently waiting for things is practically a thing of the past. If I want to know something, I can simply talk to my phone, and I will get a million possible answers in .34 seconds. If I want something, I need only tap a few things on a screen and, sometimes, by the end of the day, I can have it. I need ... I want ... answers fast. Who has time anymore to wait on things with all of our time-saving mechanisms?

Then we come to the Bible. The Bible is an ancient book with laws concerning white hairs growing out of sores, where you may and may not defecate, and how to deal with goring oxen. There are odd stories about an axe head floating, a man being swallowed by a great fish, and some guy name Jacob being touched on his thigh so that he walked with a limp the rest of his life (therefore, “the children of Israel do not eat the muscle that shrank, which is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip in the muscle that shrank.” Gen 32.32). You come to the New Testament letters and there is a quite a bit about Jews and Gentiles and their relationships with one another. What use is all of this stuff?

Books are created that use Bible blurbs to give motivational or inspirational quotes. Why? Because we need a Google Bible in which we can find those things that help us to hack it with the stresses of the twenty-first century. If it is not immediately and apparently relevant to our situation, then we don’t need it. Who has time to think through and meditate on Scripture? I just need to know that I can do all things–throw a ball, close a deal, win this game, achieve my childhood dreams–through Christ who strengthens me.

The Scriptures demand us to slow down. Read patiently. Meditate thoroughly. As you meditate through those passages that aren’t immediately relevant to your situation, the way you are thinking is changing. As the way you are thinking is changing, you are slowly being transformed (Rom 12.2). Your understanding of God, his creation, and how you relate to both properly is being shaped in a way that has long-term effects on the way you act and respond to situations around you.

For instance, in Ephesians Paul speaks about us as being seated with Christ in “the heavens” (Eph 2.6). We don’t see ourselves right now literally seated in the heavens. So, what possible relevance does this have for us? One reference that Paul has in mind here when he writes this is the second and fourth days of creation. On the second day of creation, God created the firmament, which he called “heaven.” In the firmament, on the fourth day, he placed the sun, moon, and stars for signs and festival times, to govern or rule the day and night (Gen 1.14-19). Throughout Scripture rulers and governments are symbolized by heavenly bodies. (Think about the fifty stars on our flag representing fifty governments.) Christ, the Sun of Righteousness (Mal 4.2), has risen to rule over the earth. We are seated with him in the firmament-heaven to rule with him. We rule the world with Christ Jesus in the present.

This changes the way I think. Salvation is not just about me escaping the fires of hell. Salvation is about ruling with Christ in order to set the world right. This change of thinking changes everything from the way that I pray to the way that relate to the material things of creation. I am vested with responsibility to be a good ruler, to take proper dominion over that bit of creation that God has given me (for example, my own body, my land, my family, etc.), making it fruitful.

To think like this takes time and years of meditation. It doesn’t come by mining the Scriptures for a motivational nugget or two every once in a while, or hearing teaching that is only and always “how to.”

Of all the patience that we cultivate in this Advent season, let us cultivate patience in reading the Scriptures.

Wordless Gospel Proclamation

  The heavens declare the glory of God;
        And the firmament shows His handiwork. 
    Day unto day utters speech, 
        And night unto night reveals knowledge. 
    There is no speech nor words; 
        Their voice is not heard. 
    Their line has gone out through all the earth, 
        And their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19.1-4)

If you will but look up, you can see the glory of God; his beauty, wisdom, and power. As the sun takes its path through sky, as the constellations proclaim the times of the year, and as we are overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty of the sky (or what the Bible calls “the firmament” or “the heavens”), the creation itself is wordlessly proclaiming to all the inhabitants of the world the truth about the God who created all things. 

In theological parlance this is called “natural” or “general revelation.” General revelation is distinct from “special revelation.” Special revelation is God revealing himself in the Scriptures and ultimately in Christ Jesus. We need special revelation in order to be saved. Paul makes it clear in the beginning of Romans that general revelation is enough to reveal the truth about God but not enough to save (Rom 1.19-23). General revelation is enough revelation to condemn but not enough to save. 

Psalm 19 is a classic passage used to speak about the distinction between general revelation and special revelation. In the first part of the Psalm, David sings of how the creation wordlessly proclaims the glory of God. Then, in the latter part of the Psalm, he turns his attention to extolling the special revelation of God’s Law. 

In what seems to be an odd move, Paul uses Psalm 19.4 in Romans 10.18 to refute any arguments that the Jews haven’t heard the gospel. “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’”

Is Paul contradicting what he said in the opening of his letter? Is he now saying, “Well, general revelation really does preach the gospel?” I don’t think so.

Within this little section of Romans (10.14-21), Paul refers to a number of different passages in Isaiah. All of these passages deal within their contexts with how God is making a new creation through his Suffering Servant. Paul’s argument is that this new creation has begun and is embodied in Christ Jesus. The Jews as well as the Gentiles can see this new creation in the church. And that is where Psalm 19 comes in. 

While there is no doubt Psalm 19 sings of the literal creation of firmament, sun, moon, and stars, the firmament and all of the heavenly bodies are images of the people of God. God promised Abraham that his children would be like the stars of heaven (Gen 15.5; 22.17; 26.4). This was a promise, not only of the number of Abraham’s descendants, but of their position in the world. Just as the sun, moon, and stars were seated in the heavenly places to rule over the earth, determining times and seasons (Gen 1.14-19), so Abraham’s children would be seated in heavenly places, ruling the earth.

Joseph and Jacob certainly understood this relationship. When Joseph had a dream that the sun, moon, and eleven stars/constellations would bow down to his constellation, Jacob replied, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Gen 37.10) Joseph and Jacob understood that they were the heavenly bodies who ruled the earth.

What is happening after Christ comes is a firmament rearrangement. The Gentiles are now being seated as stars in accordance with the promise to Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12.1-3). The Jews are seeing this new firmament arrangement in the church. New relationships are being created. The old walls of separation have been broken down (Eph 2.11-22). Now, in Christ, we are all seated in heavenly places (Eph 1.20; 2.6). 

Paul’s use of Psalm 19.4 is, I believe, a reference to this new situation. The Jews are hearing the wordless proclamation of the gospel by looking at the church and its new Jew-Gentile make-up. By this proclamation they are being summonsed by the King and his ambassadors to whole-hearted allegiance to Jesus as Lord; a summons that includes being a part of this renovated family of God. 

The proclamation of the gospel by means of the spoken word is indispensable to the gospel ministry. People must hear of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. They must hear how their sins can be forgiven and how they can have true life. 

But the spoken word must never stand alone. The church must wordlessly proclaim the gospel in the way we live our live together. People must see how we love one another. People must see how we live in healthy male-female relationships. People must see how we deal with sin appropriately. People must see how broken lives are being mended. In short, we heavenly bodies must proclaim the glory of God–his beauty, wisdom, and power–in our lives together. Only as we do this are we faithful ministers of the gospel.

Christ The King

Yesterday was the last Sunday of the church year; a Sunday that has come to be celebrated as “The Feast of Christ the King.” It is an appropriate end to the liturgical calendar as well as a transition into the calendrical beginning of the liturgical calendar which will begin next Sunday with Advent. “Christ the King” reflects the fact that history as we know it is moving toward a termination point; a point when all of the kingdom work is done and the Son delivers the kingdom to God the Father (1Cor 15.23-24). With faith-filled hope, we anticipate that day. Advent reminds us that we are not there yet.

This kingdom work is nothing more than the original mission that God gave man in the Garden. Man was to “take dominion,” develop a kingdom, in which all of life was ordered according to the word and will of God. Just as man was to follow the weekly pattern of six days of work followed by a Sabbath, so the whole earth was to be molded after the pattern of heaven. This project was frustrated because of sin. Man conformed himself and the creation to the word and will of the serpent. As a result “the kingdom” of man in the world began to be characterized by selfishness, tyranny, murder, and all manner of evil.

In his grace God did not allow death to completely overcome the world. Death was prominent and spread to all men (Rom 5.12), but there would be signs of life here and there. But God’s original kingdom work would not ultimately be undone for the earth. He would send another man to be king. This man would not have the same situation as the first Adam. He would first have to take dominion over sin and death, those hindrances to the world becoming fruitful. Once sin and death were decisively dealt with, then the kingdom work could begin in earnest.

Christ Jesus came and did just this. In his cross and resurrection he overcame sin and death. In doing so, he was granted the position by the Father to rule over the creation, to establish the kingdom, and complete the work the first Adam failed to do. After his resurrection, Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father to do this kingdom work. Jesus reigns now with all authority over heaven and earth (Mt 28.18). In and through his body, the church, by the power of the Spirit, Jesus continues this kingdom work until the day that it will be completed.

The reign of Christ is exercised in the world in and through his church. Jesus is completing his kingdom through what we, the church, are doing. As we go about our daily lives, serving others in our homes and jobs, seeking to bring Christ’s order wherever he has given us authority, we are participating in the kingdom work. In word and in deed we are proclaiming the gospel, the good news, that the world is under new management; the lordship of our benevolent King who has provided forgiveness and freedom from the bondage of sin and the power to live as we were created to live: as true image-bearers of God, growing up into his likeness. This message is not merely about my personal life. It is about how I am a part of God’s larger family and project for the entire creation. God has done in Christ for me what he has done so that I can be a member of his family and join him in his work.

Because Christ is King, we have a mission; a mission whose outcome is not in doubt. Jesus will have this world ordered by the word and will of God in every respect. Consequently, we work in certain hope. Dear kingdom citizen, work on. Don’t let discouragement overwhelm you. Christ is King.