Look To Your Baptism

Martin Luther is often quoted as using his baptism as a weapon in his battles with the devil. “I have been baptized,” he would tell the devil in order to make him flee. Who God told him he was and what God promised him in his baptism was Luther’s anchor that kept him moored so that he would not be ultimately dashed to pieces by the virulent waves of doubt that assaulted his soul.

We may not generally resort to our baptism as Luther did, but we should. We shouldn’t be afraid of the water. In baptism God told us that we belong to him. In baptism God united us to his Son in the church. We have been anointed with the Spirit with whom Jesus, our Head, was anointed in his baptism and ultimately his coronation. Luther was doing nothing that Paul himself didn’t do when dealing with the churches. In 1Corinthians 12 Paul appeals to their baptism to fight the factionalism in the church. Similarly in Galatians 3 Paul tells the Christians of Galatia that all those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ–whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female–and all are the seed of Abraham and heirs according to God’s promise. In Romans 6 Paul uses baptism to encourage the Roman Christians that sin no longer has dominion over them. Peter also uses baptism to assure the Christians scattered throughout the Empire that they have a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus (1Pt 3.21). The writer of Hebrews speaks about us being washed with pure water and, therefore, having boldness to draw near to God (Heb 10.22). When we look to our baptism, we are not looking to mere water or believing in some sort of hocus pocus. We are looking to what God said about us. We are looking to his Word that he sealed to us in the water by his Spirit. This is why the writers of the Scriptures can appeal to it the way they do and exhort people to walk in faithfulness according to their baptism.

This week as you go through the daily routines of life and/or face some unusual circumstances, you do so as a person who has been baptized into the Triune name. You face whatever you face as someone whom God has claimed for himself and promised that he is working every circumstance for your salvation. You know, therefore, that whatever you face, whether it be good or ill, God is in it working for you and not against you. The call to you is to walk in faith, trusting what God said about you. The call to you is to live like a baptized person ought to live; whether in unity with your brothers and sisters in Christ or resisting the other sins that no longer have dominion over you. Whatever it is, you can stand firm in the waters of your baptism because there God has given you his word.

Altar Wars

It had happened again. After God delivered the children of Israel from the Jabin, king of Canaan, and his right-hand man, Sisera, through the hand of Barak, Israel did what was evil in the sight of YHWH. Instead of tearing down the altars of the gods of the land and establishing the altar of YHWH (which was the mandate given to them after the death of Joshua) Israel began to worship the gods of the land. The altars of Baal became central to the life of Israel. They allowed Baal to tell them who they were and how they were to live together. Baal was their judge, not YHWH.

Because they wanted the culture of Baal, YHWH turned them over to what they wanted, giving them into the hand of the Midianites for seven years. Like the locusts that consumed Egypt when God was destroying that culture, the Midianites were like locusts consuming Israel (Jdg 6.5) . Israel had been warned that, if they weren’t obedient, God would bring upon them the plagues of Egypt (cf. e.g., Deut 28.27, 60). If they acted like Egypt, they would be destroyed like Egypt. That is what happened.

Under the severe oppression of the Midianites, Israel cries for mercy. YHWH, in his mercy, raises up Gideon. The Angel of YHWH comes to Gideon while he is in a winepress threshing wheat. YHWH tells Gideon his mission: he will save Israel from the hand of the Midianites (Jdg 6.14). Gideon wants assurance that this is YHWH’s word, so he asks him to stay and accept an offering from him. Gideon brings a goat and unleavened bread and presents them to YHWH, and YHWH consumes them in fire. In this act, YHWH establishes peace with Israel through Gideon (Jdg 6.24).

The nature of the war is established from the beginning. This is an altar war. We might say it is a sacramental war.

From the establishment of the peace through building an altar to YHWH, Gideon goes out and tears down the altar of Baal, a feat that gets him the name “Baal-fighter,” Jerubbaal. Only now is Israel in a position to engage war with their oppressive cultural lords.

Through a threshing process, Gideon’s army is reduced from thirty-two thousand to three hundred men. Gideon is, understandably, afraid. He needs assurance. So YHWH tells him to take his servant and go to the camp of Midian. There Gideon overhears a dream that one of the Midianites had about a barely loaf rolling down into the camp and destroying the tent-house of Midian. They know that this is Gideon and that God has delivered them into his hand.

It does seem strange that they would be scared of a loaf of bread. Was this some type of weaponized bread? A militaristic culinary creation? This was the new loaf of Israel embodied in Gideon that had been created by God. This was a worship war; our bread against your house. Our bread wins.

The war continues today, and the fundamentals of the war remain the same: our bread against their house. Each Lord’s day when we come to the Table, eating the bread that is Christ’s body, we are formed anew into one loaf. We are one body, Paul says, because we all partake of that one bread (1Cor 10.17). Each week as we are dismissed, this new loaf rolls out to destroy the house of the false gods in our culture.

Our battles aren’t over family values or generic morality. Our wars are altar wars: will Jesus be acknowledged as our King, or will we worship some other Baal? We must understand that this is where the enmity lies. It is not merely in differences in economic policies or foreign relations (though each of these is affected). How we form our economic policies or foreign relations, for example, are consequences of the altar at which we worship.

Only as we are formed into one loaf at the Table of the Lord on the Lord’s Day are we able to fight the six-day battle with the culture the rest of the week. But as we faithfully attend to Jesus’ altar, eating at his Table, being formed up by the Spirit, he will make us a loaf that will tear down the house of our enemies.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5.4)

As I write this, news is still coming in from Las Vegas, Nevada about a mass shooting at a Country Music Festival. Dozens are dead. Hundreds are injured. Not too many days ago there was a shooting at a church in Nashville, Tennessee. Every day in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities the number of murders dwarf these mass slaughters. And this is only in the United States. Around the world people are being murdered by the thousands for seemingly senseless reasons.

With the rest of our country and the world in these times we Christians mourn. Like others we mourn at being ripped apart from those we love, empathizing with others who have lost loved ones, or even realizing that these acts of violence continue to tear apart the fabric of our society. Unlike others who are not Christians we mourn because all of these tragedies are signs that sin still has a strong hold on the world and the kingdom of God has not yet been consummated. We desire for the Lordship of Jesus Christ to be acknowledged in every area of life and so bring peace where there is enmity, love where there is hate, and life where there is death. That has not yet happened, so we mourn.

But we do not mourn as those who have no hope. We shall be comforted. Jesus is Lord. His kingdom has been established. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. His kingdom will not fail. It must prevail.

Our hope in Christ Jesus makes us the blessed ones. The word “blessed” basically means “happy.” “Happy are those who mourn....” That seems contradictory. It would be if our happiness was dependent upon the circumstances that surrounded us. But it is not. Our happiness is our deep contentment, our satisfaction, and our delight in God and his purposes.

Our blessedness is rooted in the blessedness, the happiness, of God himself. Scripture reveals to us that our God is eternally blessed (see Rom 1.25; 9.5; 2Cor 11.31; 1Tim 1.11). God is eternally happy. That is, he is content, satisfied, and delights in being God. This delight in being God is not diminished through horrors such as the cross. In fact, the cross is the demonstration of God’s love, and God delights in showing his love. God is happy even in the agony of cross because the cross is God being God for us. God can always be happy because he knows that there is a joy set before him (cf. Heb 12.1-2). His grand purpose has determined that even though these horrors must occur, they are not the end of the story. God’s last word is joy, peace, and life.

As we mourn, we are joining God in his perspective. He hates sin and all of its deadly fruit. But as Christians we must fully enter into God’s perspective, which means that we must also be happy; not happy that these things happen, but happy that we have a hope that things will not always be this way. Jesus through his church is somehow, some way, turning the world right-side-up. So, while we mourn, we mourn as those who have hope.

As our neighbors mourn all around us, let us be ready to give them a defense for the hope that is in us (1Pt 3.15).

Burdened

Watching a loved one make foolish choices which you know will end in his pain or complete devastation is heart-wrenching. You watch as your loved one abuses drugs or alcohol, refuses to take care of his health by overeating, gives himself to sexual immorality, pays no attention to warnings about how he is treating his spouse, or a myriad of other things. He stubbornly refuses to hear good counsel. If there were something more you could do to turn him around, to shake him out of it, to change his heart, you would do it. The last thing you want to see is this destructive pattern to continue and end where you know it will end.

Love desires what is best for the beloved. Love causes great grief and unceasing sorrow when you see your beloved destroying himself.

Israel according to the flesh, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is on a destructive path. The majority are stubborn, refusing to hear the gospel; the gospel that proclaims that all of the hopes given to their patriarchs have been fulfilled in Christ Jesus. If they don’t turn to Christ, they will suffer an eternal hell as disinherited children to whom belonged sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, the promises, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh (Rom 9.4).

This is Paul’s family. He loves them. He loves them so much that he would pray that he himself be anathematized from Christ for their sake (Rom 9.3). That is, if Paul could suffer eternal punishment so that they would turn to Christ in faith, he would do it. That is a burden. That is love.

This love is not unprecedented. Paul is echoing what Moses did when YHWH threatened to destroy Israel at Mt. Sinai because of the worship of the golden calf. Moses interceded on behalf of Israel saying, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin--but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written” (Exod 32.31-32). Paul is a new Moses who is recognizing the sins of his family in rejecting their God. YHWH has revealed himself in the man Christ Jesus, who is God blessed forever (Rom 9.5). Israel is doing now what they did at Mt. Sinai, and destruction is imminent. Paul, like Moses, is standing between God and Israel praying that he himself be cursed for the sake of his family.

What concerned both men is that God’s own name, his righteousness, was at stake. How can God not fulfill his promises to his people? How could God reject the entire family? What would the nations say about God if they saw this?

As we are concerned about the people we love, God’s own righteousness must be what motivates our prayers. For instance, as you pray for the salvation of your children, one of the motivations of your prayers is that these baptized children bear the name of our God. If our children grow up to be unfaithful, God’s name is blasphemed because of them. We can pray for our children on the basis of God’s righteousness, pleading with him to honor his own name in their lives.

No matter how deep our concern for others, our concern should never move us to compromise God’s judgments. There are times that we care about others so much, that we may begin to think, “I know that God says that people who live the way my loved one is living will not inherit the kingdom of God, but I believe he has a good heart. I believe that somewhere, deep down, he really trusts Christ. He will be alright with God.”

This is not the way Paul thought. Even though all of these privileges belonged to Israel according to the flesh, because they refused allegiance to Jesus as Lord, they were on the road to hell. No amount of Paul’s desire could change that fact. His concern could not compromise the truth of the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His burden only deepened because of the truth.

So it should be with us.

In his providence, God has put us in proximity to people to cultivate a love for them. Blood family, friends, and neighbors are all people for whom we should be burdened. While we might not be able to be anathematized for the sake of those whom we love, we can point them to the one who was anathematized for their sakes, who now calls for their allegiance with the promise of life eternal.

Salvation Through Sin

Romans 9–11 is challenging on so many levels. Predestination and apostasy walk side-by-side in this part of the letter without even a line of explanation of how the two work together. This is the way things are. No explanation is needed.

As much as these realities are focused upon by exegetes and theologians, these doctrines are not the focus of this somewhat climatic part of the letter. They (and other Scriptural presuppositions with them) provide the foundation for Paul’s main subject: how God maintains his righteousness by keeping his promises to the fleshly children of Abraham when he has ordained their rebellion in order to accomplish salvation in Christ. (Got all that?) Earlier in the letter (2.17–3.8) it was established that it was through Israel’s sinful rebellion that salvation–God’s saving righteousness–was revealed in Jesus Christ. That is, Israel’s sin in rejecting her Messiah and crucifying him brought salvation to the world. God used Israel’s rebellion to display his righteousness. 

That provoked some questions with which Paul had to deal immediately: “If our unrighteousness brings about the righteousness of God, should we continue to sin so that the whole world will be saved?!” Those questions were dealt with, but some other questions were left dangling; namely, “What about God’s promises to the physical descendants of Abraham?” Paul is answering that question throughout Romans 9–11. This goes to the greater concern, “Has the word of God failed?” (cf. Rom 9.6)

Though much of the way God worked can now be understood as we look back through what he has done in Christ Jesus, the wisdom of God’s plan remains inscrutable. He chooses to harden some in rebellion so that he might show mercy to others. He hardens Pharaoh to show mercy to Israel. He hardens Israel to show mercy to the Gentiles. But then he will use the mercy shown to the Gentiles to make the Jews jealous so that they will come join in on the promises that were given to them in the first place.

This is God’s plan. It is the way things are. Though we are called to connect as many dots as we can in studying the works of God, there are some things we will never figure out. If we are following Paul, our inability to comprehend everything doesn’t lead to frustration but, rather, doxology. “ Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11.33-36)

There are graces given to you by God that you will never figure out. How is it that someone with your family history can experience the salvation that you have experienced? How is it that with all the bad things that people have done to you, you have a healthy relationship with God? How is it that a sinner like you can know God like you do? There is no other explanation but the grace of God. He chose to harden some so that he could show mercy to you. In the story of redemption he did this with Israel. In our personal stories within this story, it is possible that he has hardened others in order to show mercy to you. 

Why? I don’t know. That’s just his plan. He hasn’t called you to figure out why. Ours is to respond in grateful allegiance and praise, enjoying the mercy we’ve been shown.

God For Us: A Baptismal Exhortation

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8.31)

Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, who of your great mercy saved Noah and his family in the ark from perishing by water; and also safely led the children of Israel, your people, through the Red Sea, which was a type of holy Baptism; and by the Baptism of your well-beloved Son Jesus Christ, in the river Jordan, sanctified water to the mystical washing away of sin: We beseech you, for your infinite mercies, that you would mercifully look upon this Child; wash her and sanctify her with the Holy Spirit; that she, being delivered from your wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being steadfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally she may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with you age after age, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

“God for us” is the promise and comfort of the gospel of Jesus Christ to all those who love God.

“God for us” is the assurance that we have that no matter what happens in this life all of it must be working together for our good.

“God for us” means that God has fully invested himself in those who are in Christ Jesus to see the work started in us completed.

“God for us” is the assurance that before the foundations of the world, God set his love upon us, determining that we would be his. 

“God for us” means that even with the entrance of sin into the world, with all of the pain, heartache, and trouble that it brings, God is still at work on our behalf.

“God for us” is his giving himself to us fully in love, demonstrated preeminently at the cross, where he definitively suffered the penalty for our sins in Christ Jesus.

“God for us” is his victory over the grave, declaring that in Christ Jesus we are fully forgiven and stand righteous before him.

“God for us” is his giving us the gift of the Spirit so that we would be joined to him in the Son, bound in love to the eternal Trinity.

“God for us” means that he makes promises to us in the waters of baptism, and he will not fail to keep those promises. 

“God for us” means that, empowered by his Spirit, he has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness; there is nothing that we lack to live a faithful life.

This morning God declares to Elizabeth Archer that he is for her. He lives and does all that he does for her.

In the weakness of her infancy, he is for her, demonstrating that by joining her to himself through the waters of baptism.

Even when she is powerless, he is powerful for her; embracing her and protecting her. God is for her.

And if God is for her–if God is for us–then who can be against us? Who can withstand the power of his protection over us?

Who can come against us and penetrate that love so as to pry her loose from the love of God? There is nothing that can defeat the love of God that we enjoy in Christ Jesus. 

This love that God is promising to Elizabeth this morning, this love that he has promised to all of us in baptism, is love that demands a response.

This love is only found in Christ Jesus. God is for us in Christ. He is only for us in Christ.

God is for those who love him, and those who love him are those who love his Son and have pledged their allegiance to him. 

The promises of God should never be presumed upon. Never should we think that God is for us if we have set ourselves up as his enemies by living contrary to his will. 

Elizabeth must lay hold of the promises of God for her by faith throughout the rest of her life. 

Caleb and Rachel, by virtue of her birth in your family, God has given you the stewardship of his child. 

As ministers of his church and for the sake of his church, you must be faithful in discipling her. She must grow up in her faith.

God has given you everything you need to do this. He has given you the church, and through the church, the Word, sacraments, prayer, and fellowship to strengthen you in your duty. 

Stay faithful. Demonstrate the beauty of love for God to Elizabeth so that she will desire it with all of her heart.

Teach her that God is for her, and that as she perseveres in the faith, there will be nothing that can come between her and the love of her God. 

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

Predestination

Predestination. The word itself provokes all sorts of images in people’s minds. Some will see this austere God who is sorting people out as impersonally as a CPA working with numbers on a page. These go over here in the “going to heaven” group. Those go over there in the “going to hell” group. Those groups are set from before the foundation of the world. Consequently, there is nothing you can do to get out of one group and into another. Your decisions mean nothing. Even if you were to love God with all of your heart, if you are in the “going to hell” group, your destiny is fixed by the big Bureaucrat in the sky.

The reaction to this image of God is, understandably, negative. Understanding God in this way is anything but comforting, and it certainly doesn’t take into account the personal relationship that involves love and choices revealed in Scripture. As a result, there are Christians who will throw the predestination baby out with the sovereign bath-water.

This is not the Scriptural picture of predestination. But we must be careful not to discard the whole idea of predestination. The Scriptures do teach that God predestines events, the course of the world, and the lives of people.

Predestination is just what the word denotes: it is determining destinies beforehand. The Scripture is quite clear that God is sovereign and does, indeed, set the destinies for all things, including people. Paul says clearly that God works all things after the counsel of his own will (Eph 1.11). It is quite clear in Romans 9 that God chooses people for his own purposes before they are born (Rom 9.10ff.). Predestination can’t be rejected without doing violence to an important Scriptural truth: God’s absolute sovereignty. Trying to protect man’s sovereignty at the expense of God’s sovereignty leaves us with a God who is subject to the whims of man. Nothing is certain.

However, the Scriptures don’t present predestination in impersonal terms. We serve a personal God who, in his mysterious sovereignty, deals with us personally. Predestination is (primarily) presented in Scripture as the expression of God’s love for his people. His absolute sovereignty over all men and our destinies is a comfort for those of us who love God.

This is how Paul presents predestination in Romans 8.29-30. In a world that looks like it is coming apart at the seams, a world in which the creation and we in it are groaning because of the effects of sin, God’s predetermined purposes to bring everything and everyone to a certain end means that all of this makes sense in the plan of God ... even when it all looks completely random to us. As we suffer with Christ, we need certainty that it is not all in vain. We have that certainty. God set his love upon us before the foundation of the world, establishing a relationship with us. He foreknew us; he foreloved us.

Foreknowing us he predestined us that we should be conformed to the image of his Son. For those of us who love God, he has determined that we will be conformed to the image of his Son. This means that we will share his character. We will be holy as he is holy. We will love what he loves.

This also means that we will share his vocation. The Son is God’s appointed ruler of the world. We as sons of God in the Son of God are predestined to rule with Jesus. We will inherit glory with Christ Jesus.

While we cannot pry into the secret counsels of God concerning every aspect of predestination, we can be sure of our predestination unto glory by how we relate to Jesus now. Do you live in allegiance to Jesus as your Lord? Do you love what he loves? Do you fight sin and cultivate righteousness in your life? These are evidences of the Spirit’s working in your life.

As you are fighting the good fight, the Scriptural teaching of God’s predestination undergirds your faith, helping you not to lose hope. God will not fail you in keeping his promises. All of those who are loyal to Christ will certainly inherit the promised glory. It has already been determined.

The Good From The Bad And Ugly

Sometimes it seems that the more we pray the worse things become. Even if they’re not becoming worse, they don’t seem to be improving. Sickness and death still plague us. Our Western civilization is losing its collective mind. Hurricanes still strike our coasts and bring unbelievable destruction to property and life. Now with the availability of information 24/7/365 we are notified about every bad situation from our own neighborhoods to Timbuktu. We are constantly bombarded with everything that is going wrong in the world. Our minds are overwhelmed with this information noise that can be discouraging and disorienting.

If we are praying and nothing is perceptibly changing, why do we keep doing it? If we are weak and don’t know what to pray for as we ought, we do we keep praying with wordless groanings, not knowing just how our prayers are being answered (Rom 8.26)? 

We persevere in prayer and through all of the suffering and groaning because “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8.28). This is our assurance in prayer. This is our assurance in every situation in life; the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is our foundation for sanity in an insane world. 

Our God has a plan. That plan will not be thwarted by the sin of man. Indeed, God, in his wisdom, is using even the sin of man to work for the good of his people and, through them, the entirety of the cosmos. One need only look at the cross to see this truth. While sin is not good in itself and will be punished, God is working through sin to accomplish his purpose. All of the insanity that is going on all around us right now in Western civilization is all a part of the plan.

Lest we begin to believe that God’s plan is dependent upon our strength as the church, we need to remember that we are weak and don’t know what to pray for as we ought. God’s purpose will not be accomplished because we are mighty prayer warriors who know just what to pray. We are assured that the Spirit is working with us in prayer and that our weakness will in no way hinder what God will do for us. God works through our weakness in prayer to accomplish his purpose.

Our encouragement in prayer is not that we come to the place that we have figured everything out and that we know how to fix it. Our encouragement is not even seeing God do what we want him to do for us and those around is in the short term. Our encouragement is that we love, serve, and pray to a sovereign heavenly Father who loves us, is sovereign for us, and promises that he is working all things together for good whether we see it or not. 

Yes, we come groaning in prayer with the weight of the effects of sin being felt. But we come groaning to a heavenly Father who loves us and enters into that pain with us in Christ and by the Spirit. He is not a God who is far off but a God who is near. And this God who loves us and is near to us is the one who declares the end from the beginning; he works all things after the counsel of his own will (Eph 1.11).

On this side of our resurrection there will always be reason to groan in suffering prayer. But as we pray, we can pray with the rock-solid faith that our heavenly Father loves us more than we can imagine and has a good purpose for us. We can trust him that the suffering we endure, no matter what form it takes, is under his control and is working for our good.

Prayer: Our Words In The Word

In the beginning the Speaker spoke the Word. The Word went out from the Speaker, carried along by the Breath, and the world was created, formed, and filled. Speaker, Word, and Breath working in loving, powerful union with one another to create from nothing everything that is. 

The height of this creative activity was the creation of man himself, the image of God. He is a creaturely word; a revelation of God within the creation. This form fashioned from the dust of the ground was himself filled with the Spirit-Breath of God. This Spirit empowered him to take the creation given to him and, by word and deed, follow in the image of God to create, arrange, form, and fill this creation so that it will one day reflect God’s own heavenly throne room. This is his dominion task.

The dominion man is to take over the world is not some impersonal job handed down to him from a distant God. The man is a part of the divine family. God has called him into the family business of creating. He can’t do this apart from the rest of the family. He is not God himself after all. He, like the Triune God, must work in concert with the family. Man is dependent upon Father, Son, and Spirit–Speaker, Word, and Breath–to take the dominion over the creation.

Central to this mission, therefore, is to be in prayerful communion with the Triune God. Man is a co-laborer with God. God doesn’t do the work apart from man, and man doesn’t do the work apart from God. God has sovereignly chosen to act in this way.

The Divine Family is still working as they did in the original creation, and we who belong to the family now participate in this creation project. We have been united to God the Father–the Speaker–in the Son–the Word–by the Spirit–the Breath. Now being “in the Word” we are “words of God.” Being given the Spirit at Pentecost, we are words of the Speaker being carried along by the Breath of God to create, arrange, form, and fill the world so that it comes to look like the kingdom of God. Our words do this, not because they are mechanical, not because they are always theologically precise, but because we share the life of God himself, the Creator of all. The Spirit helps our weaknesses; when we don’t have just the right words or we haven’t done things just right. Because we share life with him, he is more than making up for our weaknesses.

Within this creation project we share with God, prayer is indispensable. In prayer we are caught up in the Trinity to participate in this power that God himself exercises over and in the world. There are other activities that are necessary to our taking of dominion, but nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than prayer. Nothing can replace it. While we all have different gifts of the Spirit to accomplish the mission of the church, we all share the ability and responsibility to pray.

If the church is to accomplish her mission, then prayer will need to be central to her life together. Prayer cannot be subordinate to all of the other activities that go on in the church. We are not a “house of social gatherings,” or a “house of support groups.” We are first and foremost a house of prayer (Isa 56.7). If the church forgets this most fundamental activity in her life together, we have become only another civic organization. Yes, we may grow great crowds because people “feel connected” or there is so much for them to do. But if prayer is not central to the life of that group of people, the church is not being what she was called to be and her mission cannot be accomplished. 

In love our God bids us to join him in his creative work through prayer. He desires that we share the fullness of his life. What could be a higher and more beautiful privilege? Why would we let ourselves be distracted from the disciplines of prayer by lesser things? 

You, dear Christian, are imbued with power because of your membership in the divine family. Though many times imperceptible to you, when you pray, the world is changing. Give yourself to prayer. Pray individually. Pray with your family. Pray with the church. Pray.

What To Pray?

What the world needs now is a crazed Muslim leader in the Middle East who has nuclear capabilities to launch a nuclear weapon at the USA. The world needs Christians to suffer and die at the hands of atheistic Communists and rabid Muslims. America needs abortion to continue to be legal for decades to come. Aunt Lucy needs to be diagnosed with stage four cancer. Uncle Joe needs to be in an accident so that he loses a leg. Henrietta needs to lose her child to leukemia. We and the rest of creation need these horrible things.

Who would ever think such things? Who would ever pray for such things? No one that I know.

However, in the infinite wisdom of God, situations like these may indeed be necessities. I know it is repulsive to you. It churns my stomach as well. But so does the cross, yet it was a necessity. Jesus told his disciples on a number of occasions that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die at the hands of Israel’s leaders (cf. e.g., Matthew 16.21). They couldn’t grasp it at the time because it was a category mistake. Messiah doesn’t suffer defeat. He wins. How could this be necessary? To kill the Messiah would be sin. How is sin necessary?

I’m not telling you that I understand why these are necessities. I’m only telling you that they are. God raises up Pharaohs, Assyrians, and Babylonians to oppress his people, and prophets such as Habbakuk have problems with it too. He turns the devil loose on his faithful servant Job to bring him to the point of death. He raises up scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Roman governors to kill his Son. These are all necessities.

But would you pray for such things? No. But then again, you don’t know what to pray for as you ought; you don’t know what the world needs. So says Paul in Romans 8.26. We see the creation groaning. We groan when we participate in the suffering and see others suffering. We pray for deliverance. And we should. We know that this is not the way things ultimately ought to be. The created order is in disarray, and we want it set right. That’s proper. Praying toward that end is the right thing to do. Jesus taught us to pray that way.

But how God is getting us there is just as mysterious to us as it was for the disciples when Jesus told them that it was necessary for him to suffer and die. We don’t know what the world needs exactly in this or that situation. We don’t know what we need. Our perspective is limited, not only because we’re sinners, but because we’re creatures. God has not afforded us the perspective that he has on the world. He is the wise one who know how everything–even sin–fits together and is working toward the good of his people and the rest of creation. No matter how much wisdom we mature into in our lifetimes, our wisdom will never be God’s wisdom. There will never be a time when we know exactly what to pray; when we know precisely what is needed in every situation.

The Spirit helps us in this weakness (Rom 8.26). However, he doesn’t help us by giving us the exact words to pray so that we can get a grasp on the situation and fix it. The Spirit groans with us, never giving us the relief of putting it into words. He never gives us that leverage over the world. We are called to suffer in prayer with the world, and the Spirit comes and suffers with us, interceding for us.

And the Father understands the Spirit’s groanings. He knows the mind of the Spirit, and he will give us and the creation what we need. We can be assured of that. 

In light of this, praying in faith is not claiming this healing or really believing that God will remove this oppressor if pray long enough. Praying in faith is following the prayer life of our Lord himself who prays, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” Praying in faith is submitting all those things we think are necessities to the wisdom of the Father. Yes, we ask him for the things we think we need. But we trust the will of our loving heavenly Father to do what is best for us and the creation. We know that our Father will not give us a serpent when we ask for a fish. He will not give us a scorpion when we ask for an egg (Luke 11.11-12). He will give us good gifts, even when they come in packages of suffering.

Praying In The Spirit

At this present time in whole of the created order, there is a hauntingly bright symphony being performed. The creation is groaning and travailing in the pains of childbirth like the deep, resonating, sad tones of a cello. The groans of the cello are joined in the same melodic progression by the violins of Christians’ groaning. As Christians we find ourselves in harmony with the creation, giving it further voice because we share in the same pain, waiting with the rest of creation for the redemption of our bodies. But there is a third voice; a voice deeper and more fundamental in this symphony that is controlling it and moving it toward its conclusion. It is the double bass of the Spirit, groaning out wordless music to the Father. We and the rest of creation with us have joined with him so that we are taking up his groans and he is taking up our groans in this symphony of prayer.

This is praying in the Spirit.

What the writers of Scripture exhort in shorthand in other places, Paul describes in Romans 8. From here we begin to learn what prayer is. Prayer is not some impersonal spanning of a great distance between us and God through the medium of words. Prayer is participation in the eternal divine conversation. Father, Son/Word, and Spirit have been in this communion of conversation forever. In grace our Triune God has made us members of his family and, therefore, the conversation.  We are family members who share the relationship of the Son with the Father because of the Spirit uniting us to the body of Christ. As Paul says to another church, “For through [Christ Jesus] we both [i.e., Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father.” (Eph 2.18) Prayer is joining the loving conversation that the Holy Trinity is having. As Christians we are not outsiders who somehow hope to gain the ear of our distant God. We are not far off but rather have been brought near in Christ Jesus. We share the same relationship with the Father that Jesus himself shares. Being in the Son is the only reason we can call God, “Father.” But being in the Son means that we do, indeed, have that privilege with Jesus. And it is the Spirit of the Son that God the Father has given us who causes us to cry out, “Abba, Father.” (Gal 4.6)

By the Spirit we are fully incorporated into this family and the family conversation. The Spirit doesn’t merely create a bald status of being a child of God. Rather, he pours the love of God out in our hearts (Rom 5.5) so that we share the love of God. That is, we love what he loves, hate what he hates, want what he wants; we share his sorrows, his joys, his anger, his jealousy, his compassion, his mercy, and his grace. As we pray in the Spirit, these shared desires are given expression. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our wills are becoming one with his will. Our hearts are in harmony with the Father, Son, and Spirit. That’s what it means to pray in the Spirit.

When we look around us and see that things are not right, that God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven, that the creation is in pain, our hearts groan. But we discover that these groans are not just our own, but they are also the groans of God himself being expressed by the Spirit in us and on our behalf to the Father. When we groan in this way, we are finding ourselves caught up in this symphony that is ultimately being conducted and played by our Triune God. When we find ourselves there, we have found the place of prayer.

Because these groans are not our own but participation with the Holy Trinity, we have the assurance that our groans are not pointless pain. Rather, we groan in hope. The God who groans with us is the same God who is working all things together for good (Rom 8.28). Yes, the creation is subjected to frustration, but it is subjected in hope (Rom 8.20). God has secured this hope through the death and resurrection of his Son and by the giving of his Spirit who is making a new creation. Our groaning prayers will not go unanswered. The haunting music that fills our souls with the rest of creation at present will modulate into the joyful music of dancing in the end.

The Conundrum of Hope

Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. From common illnesses to terminal illnesses, from putting to death the sinful deeds of the body to being put to death by those who hate the gospel, from fighting enemies within to fighting enemies without, the church suffers. It is our calling. The work of salvation that Jesus definitively began in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension will not be complete until his body, the church, is also bodily raised from the dead at the last day. Between this time and that we have been called to endure the suffering that comes in a creation that has not yet been completely liberated from the corruption of sin.

This suffering, however, is not without a purpose. It is not a fight that ends in a draw. It is a training camp for Christians to learn to rule the creation as it ought to be ruled. Just as Jesus did in his life, so we learn obedience through the things that we suffer. And like him, we are being matured through what we suffer (cf. Heb 5.8-9). Somehow and someway that is not presently clear to us, God is working all of our suffering for our good and, consequently, the good of the rest of creation, which will be saved when we are revealed to be the sons of God through the redemption of our bodies (that is, in the resurrection; Rom 8.19-21, 28).

The question is, What gives us the strength to endure these present sufferings? Hope. More specifically, the hope of glory.

This hope is not the wispy positive thinking of some motivational speaker who tells you that everything will turn out alright because everything always turns out alright. That’s wishful thinking. It’s not a solid foundation for hope. Hope built on the sands of wishful thinking will eventually crumble when the tides of suffering are relentless.

Our hope of glory–the hope that we ourselves will one day be completely freed from the corruption of sin and its death in body and mind and that the rest of creation will follow us–our hope of glory is firmly fixed on the Word of God declared boldly in the resurrection of Jesus and confirmed continually by the presence of his Spirit with us. The Word that was before the world and that created everything that we see is the Word in whom we trust. Our hope in Christ Jesus is more sure than the things in the creation that we can touch, see, feel, or taste.

Having this hope we have the strength to endure all of the battles with sin and its corruption in this present life; whether those battles rise from within us in being tempted to sin, or they come from without in dealing with the corrupting power of sin in relationships. We can endure because we have a sure hope that this is not the way it will always be. God promised.

Our future hope gives us present strength to endure. What you hope for shapes what you desire and the way you live right now. The young man who has been promised by his parents that he may buy his first car when he is sixteen, works and saves with that hope in mind. He resists temptation to buy other things that are frivolous. He has to say “No” to activities with his friends at times because he has to work. He gets tired along the way, but then he remembers the prize. He keeps pushing on, maintaining the disciplines that will get him to his hope.

So it is with us as Christians and our hope. Our future hope shapes our desires and the way we live. Because we long for what God has promised, knowing that we must suffer with Christ in order that we may be glorified together (Rom 8.17), that means that we discipline our lives accordingly. We must say “No” to temptations, even when everyone else is doing it. There may even be things that are technically lawful for us to do, but they are not as profitable to our lives as they should be (cf. 1Cor 6.12). Our desire for the best outweighs our desire for the acceptable.

Show me how you’re living, and I will tell you what you hope for.

When that young man finally buys that car, when his hope is realized, all that he went through to get there will seem like no real trouble at all because it all came together to bring him to this place. “I reckon that sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed to us” (Rom 8.18). When we, the church, finally reach our hope, we will understand that this was but a “momentary light affliction” that was working in us an “eternal weight of glory” (2Cor 4.17). Weighed in the balances, our present sufferings are not even worth comparing to our future glory.

Not all of our suffering is directly produced by sin and its corruption. Some of our suffering is produced by our hope. Our hope has been deferred, and our hearts are sick (Prov 13.12). Knowing what is coming, knowing that one day we will be liberated from all of the bondage of corruption, creates in us a longing that groans in pain until that day arrives. We suffer because we have hope. We see the world around us living contrary to the gospel, killing itself. We stand by the bedsides of loved ones, watching them die. We feel the sting of an unfaithful spouse. We get caught up in the tension of someone’s bitterness toward us. We live in a church that is, at many points, unnecessarily divided. We read of our brothers and sisters being slaughtered by oppressive governments and religions. We hear that dreaded diagnosis and prognosis from the doctor.  In all of this, we suffer from the sin itself as well as the presence of hope that makes our longings even greater and our groaning even deeper. We begin to understand the cries of the Psalmists, and we cry out in song with them , “How long, O Lord?”

Our hope produces groaning in a sinful world, but it is also our strength through it.

Spirit Of Sonship. Spirit Of Warfare.

Once upon a time there was this little boy who was growing up in a horrid home situation. His parents were abusive to one another and to him. They were cooking Meth, shooting up heroin, engaged in sexual perversions, and living in squalor. They neglected him and left him for days at a time to fend for himself. The outlook for his life was bleak at best. As he grew up, this was the only life he knew. He thought that this was the way that life was to be lived. Consequently, he adopted this way of life for himself, following the pattern of his parents who had, by the culture they developed in the home, developed this way of thinking and living in him. He knew nothing else.

One day a man and his wife learned of the situation and decided to try to help the boy. The biological parents objected strongly (as parents in these situations are sometimes prone to do even though they don’t care at all for the child). However, the child saw something in this man and his wife that was attractive. He wanted to be a part of their family.

Arrangements were made, and, at great expense, the young boy was adopted by the man and his wife. His new life was beautiful. He was treated with great love. Life wasn’t always easy because his parents required discipline from him, but it was incomparably better than it was before. His new parents provided for him richly, not only with food, clothing, and shelter, but with the affection he had never known. Living as their son he would not only be provided for now but in the future. He was an heir to everything his new parents owned.

He had been rescued from a horrible situation. He was grateful. However, the ways he had learned in the years he spent in his original home were not excised easily. He constantly fought attitudes and desires that pulled him back to that old culture. He hated those ways of his biological parents, but they were also comfortable in a sick sort of way. Now, on the one hand, he felt this obligation, this debt, as it were, to his biological parents. On the other hand, he felt a debt to his adoptive parents because of the kindness and love shown to him in rescuing him. This new life was beautiful and held great promise for the future. But was this what he really wanted?

If he goes back to his old way of living, he is forsaking his inheritance and it is certain misery and death. If he stays where he is, his future is secure and beautiful. What will he do?

I don’t know. You tell me. You are that child, Christian.

Because of our heritage in Adam, we still have a pull toward the thinking and ways of the flesh; thinking and living that questions the goodness of God’s purposes and commandments and wants to go in the opposite direction. There are times we might even think that we just can’t help ourselves because we are in these bodies of death (or mortal bodies; cf. Rom 6.12). However, we are not debtors to the flesh to live after the flesh (Rom 8.12). That old flesh was crucified with Christ in baptism (Rom 6.1-11). All the debts have been paid. There is no reason to be under the sway of sin. If we adopt the old fleshly ways of living, no matter the profession of our lips, we will die (Rom 8.13). That is the fruit of allegiance to the flesh.

We are no longer debtors to the flesh, but we are debtors: debtors to God the Father, his Christ, and his Spirit. The Triune God has bound us to himself in a covenant that requires that we pay the debt of loving him with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. This love expresses itself in willingness to engage in warfare against the flesh, putting to death the deeds of the body through the power of the Spirit. This is the way of life (Rom 8.13).

Those who engage in this battle with the sinful deeds of the body manifest that the Spirit of God is truly working in them. God’s Spirit bears witness with their spirits in this way. They are desiring the same thing. They are walking in the same direction. They love the Father and the Son as the Spirit loves the Father and the Son and want nothing more than to please them with the way they are living. They want to hear, “Well done!” Those who live this way, those who are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.

Being led by the Spirit doesn’t mean that the battle with the deeds of the body will be easy or without pain. In fact, it means just the opposite. The children of Israel were led by the Spirit of God into the inheritance of the Promised Land, but that leading meant doing battle with giants in the land. Jesus was led (actually driven!) by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. The Spirit leads us into and through battle, not around it.  The Spirit has always led God’s sons into battle. The Spirit of adoption or sonship is the Spirit of warfare.

Furthermore, there is no silver bullet that will end the battle. God has called us into a fight that ends either in the death of the deeds of the body or our own eternal death. He gives us everything that we need through the power of his Spirit, but you will have to fight day in and day out.

One day the fight will end. It may not be this day, but that day is coming. Those who have suffered with Christ in these battles will inherit glory with Christ. Our promised rest is coming. Our future is beautiful and secure in Christ Jesus. Don’t turn back to the ways of the flesh. Keep fighting!

The Jealousy Test

In 1Corinthians 11 Paul gives instructions, sobering exhortations, and explanations concerning the Lord’s Supper as it is practiced in the church in Corinth. Some of the Corinthians were acting like selfish pigs and not waiting on their brothers and sisters to eat. In their refusal to wait and eat with the rest of the family of Christ, they were dividing the body of Christ. They were not discerning the Lord’s body properly (1Cor 11.29); that is, they were, in their actions, judging others as being outside of the body of Christ who were, indeed, in the body of Christ. This is why Paul concludes his instructions with the exhortation, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another...” (1Cor 11.33).

The judgment that had fallen on the Corinthians was severe. Their exclusion of certain family members brought divine displeasure upon some. Their lack of discerning the body was the cause of many being weak and ill and some of them “sleeping” (i.e., dying; 1Cor 11.30).

How does Paul know that this is the cause of this divine displeasure? Isn’t it dangerous to interpret events like this and attribute God’s action to them? Generally, we should use extreme caution. Some might say, “Paul was an inspired apostle and could make that judgment.” That’s possible. But there is another possibility as well.

In Numbers 5 God provided a way for a jealous husband to test the fidelity of his wife. If the husband suspected his wife of being unfaithful, he would take her to the Tabernacle and the priest to be vindicated or condemned. The jealousy test was administered when there were no witnesses to the alleged infidelity. Only God would know, so God would have to be the one to expose it.

The man would bring his wife to the priest with a memorial portion of grain. A memorial in Scripture is that which causes God to remember his covenant and act accordingly (cf. e.g., Gen 9.13-15). This grain offering would be a memorial to bring iniquity to God’s remembrance (Num 5.15).

With the grain in their hands, God also provided a holy drink. The process involved taking dirt from the Tabernacle floor (which is holy ground) and putting it into holy water in an earthen vessel (Num 5.17). Eventually that water would be joined by words of curse that had been written down and then washed off into the water (Num 5.23). 

The woman would then drink the water. If nothing happened, she was declared innocent. If she was guilty, her belly would swell and her thigh would rot (Num 5.22). We don’t know exactly what this means, but it seems that she would have a false pregnancy, giving birth to nothing. Her womb would be dead and no children would pass between her thighs. Death was the consequence of infidelity. 

We don’t know if this law was ever carried out against any woman in Israel. It might have been intended for the whole of Israel herself. There is a foreshadowing of this law happening at Mt Sinai when the new bride of YHWH commits adultery with a golden calf. The calf is ground to powder, put in water, and the people are made to drink. The guilty ones are then evident, and the Levites inflict the death penalty on them (Exod 32).

This jealousy test, it seems to me, provides at least some of the context for Paul’s interpretation of the events in Corinth. Grain–bread–and holy wine are brought. They are the body and blood of Christ, the Word of God made flesh. To eat and drink this holy food vindicates us or exposes our infidelity. This jealousy test happens every Lord’s Day as we gather around the Table of our husband. Unlike the bride in Numbers 5, we don’t eat and drink the shadows but the substance. Consequently, our vindication is greater but so is our punishment.

The jealousy test aspect of the Lord’s Supper is one of God’s mercies to us. We need any and all infidelities exposed. It is better that they be exposed now than in the final judgment. As they are exposed in the present, we can deal with them through confession and repentance. At the final judgment there is no repentance.

This is one reason why you shouldn’t avoid the Lord’s Supper as a member of Christ’s church. Not only have you compounded your sin by disobeying a direct command of Jesus who told us to “eat” and “drink,” but you have also cut yourself off from this grace of sin being exposed so that it can be dealt with.

The Lord has many ways to expose sin, not all involving you falling ill or dead on the spot. It may be that your secret sins come to light to the pastor and elders of the church so that the sin can be put to death. You were sneaking around being unfaithful in some way, thinking that you were getting away with living a duplicitous life. You come to the Table, devour the Word of God, and God exposes you in his grace. The Supper is not the problem. Sin is the problem, and it is the grace of God to expose it so that you have the opportunity to kill it through confession and repentance. 

Knowing that you will be tested this next Lord’s Day now encourages you to be much more aware of your private fidelity throughout the week. It matters not if no one sees your web activity because you are wily enough to hide it from everyone. That paramour that you meet on business trips out of the city will never be found. But God knows, and for your good, he will make it known. If he doesn’t, you’re in bad shape for the final judgment.

In The Flesh Or In The Spirit

The old flesh gets blamed for quite a bit in Christians’ lives. If someone blows up on you in anger, you might hear, “That’s just the old flesh coming out in me.” The reasoning behind this is something like this: I’ve got a good part of me that is controlled by the Spirit, and I have a bad part of me that is controlled by the flesh. The flesh, in this way of thinking, is the old man to which a new man was somehow added. You might even hear illustrations about how we carry around this dead man, a rotting corpse, on our backs like some old Roman punishment. As Christians we have multiple personalities. This makes it all too convenient when we sin to shift responsibility to the “flesh-side” and act as if we really don’t have any control. That’s just kind of the way we are and the way we’re going to be until we die and leave this flesh behind in a grave somewhere enjoying disembodied bliss in heaven.

That picture is not exactly accurate. Yes, there is a sense in which the flesh is still a reality in our lives as Christians. Our “mortal bodies” (our “death bodies”) are still associated with the flesh; that corruptible and corrupted existence that we inherited from Adam. These death-bodies still have those desires of the flesh (Rom 6.12) that plague us and want to bring us under dominion. We still have the desires in our bodies to sin, and we do sin.

However, as those who have received the Spirit of Christ, there is another sense in which we are not in the flesh. Paul says this emphatically in Romans 8.9: “Y’all are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” How can Paul say this? Is he speaking out of both sides of his mouth?

Being “in the flesh” is more than just having a body. Being in the flesh is living as if Jesus had never died, risen again, and given us his Spirit. Being in the flesh is living under the dominion of sin and death. It is to be in bondage to the desires of the flesh and, thus, opposed to Christ’s kingdom program (see Rom 8.5-8). As Christians, we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. Being in the Spirit means that we have adopted Jesus’ kingdom program for ourselves, swearing our allegiance to him as Lord, and fighting against the flesh. 

When the Spirit dwells in us, the body is “dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom 8.10). The Spirit now inhabits this death-body. What the Spirit does with dead bodies is raise them from the dead. He gives life to this mortal flesh both now and when he raises our bodies from the grave.

As you walk in the Spirit, you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal 5.16). The Spirit is working in us and with us to put to death the deeds of these death bodies (Rom 8.13). The Spirit is doing with us (generally) over a long period of time what he did with Jesus in a short period of time: transform our dead bodies through resurrection. 

He works in this way as we hear the Word read and taught, as we gather with other saints to pray around the Lord’s Table, and as we encourage one another daily. The Spirit is ministering through the other members of the body of Christ transform us from glory to glory (2Cor 3.18).

One thing that Paul is doing here, as he says in Romans 8.12, is telling us that we are not debtors to the flesh to live after the flesh. We have no obligations to obey the flesh. In other words, we can’t say (as a riff on an old Flip Wilson line), “The flesh made me do it.” You don’t live under the kingship of the flesh but of the Spirit. You don’t have to obey. You are not a helpless victim. God has provided means through which his Spirit will minister to you; whether through counselors, pastors, friends, the ordinary life of the church, or similar things. 

Faith accepts this reality, understanding that this is who God has made me in Christ Jesus, and then walks in lock-step with that reality. When you obey the desires of the body and sin, you own the full responsibility for your sin, you confess and repent of it, and keep moving forward. 

You are not a subject in the kingdom of the flesh. Don’t let anyone, even yourself, convince you that you are. God has given you his Spirit and with him all the power you need to put to death the deeds of the body.

The Community Calendar

At the heart of the Church Calendar is the weekly gathering of God’s people around the Lord’s Table. This is the Lord’s Day. Every other celebration throughout the Church Year is nothing more than a commentary of what goes on here each week.

Since our earliest days after the resurrection of Jesus, the church has been celebrating the Lord’s Day on Sunday. Our fathers understood that this day was anticipated in the Hebrew Scriptures with all of the references to the “eighth day.” Circumcision occurred on the eighth day (Lev 12.3). Cleansing of lepers went through an eight-day process, and he was fully cleansed on the eighth day (Lev 14.10, 23). Other uncleannesses went through a seven-day cleansing process so that the unclean person was finally clean on the eighth day (cf. Lev 15.14; Num 6.10). The Temple of Solomon and the visionary Temple of Ezekiel both have seven-day cleansings with the eighth day being the day that final cleansing is realized (1Kg 8.65; Ez 43.27).

Time, being a part of creation, was corrupted with the sin of Adam. The entire first week of creation had to be cleansed. A new creation came out of the old. This happened on the eighth day, the day that Jesus rose from the dead. Consequently, the apostles set the example for us to gather the church on the first day of the week; or the eighth day (cf. Ac 20.7; 1Cor 16.2).

While it is good to follow this pattern, it doesn’t seem that this is absolutely necessary. There is freedom in the new covenant church to set apart times to gather around the Lord’s Table on other days if necessary because of persecution or some other extenuating circumstance. God has given the church “stars”–pastors (cf. Rev 1.20)–to govern the times and seasons for the church as wisdom dictates what is best for the church in that situation. When the pastors of these churches set the time to gather around the Lord’s Table, then it is incumbent upon the members of the congregation to be there unless providentially hindered. To refuse to obey those who have rule over you (Heb 13.17) is a sin.

But what about the rest of the activities of the church? The rest of the activities of the church that don’t involve the Lord’s Table are not “absolutely necessary.” That is, you shouldn’t be under the threat of excommunication for not going to a Vespers service or a special Feast.

If these activities aren’t absolutely necessary, then why do churches have them? I can’t speak for other churches, but I can tell you why I lead our church to have these other activities. God has given us a blueprint for what he wants the church to be. This blueprint is all throughout Scripture but culminates in one glorious vision in Revelation 21–22. The pastor is called to be a Temple builder (cf. 1Cor 3). We look at the blueprints and then begin to figure how best to build our local congregations to match the design of God. The Lord’s Day service is non-negotiable. It is foundational. But the Lord’s Service is only one aspect of our lives together. To build a loving, vibrant culture, we must have shared life, which means shared time. These times need to contribute to what we are called to be as the church.

God’s Temple is a house of prayer for all nations, so we have special prayer services outside of the Lord’s Service to keep us engaged with one another and fulfill our mission for the world. God’s Temple is a place of celebration, so we have special feast days together–everything from fellowship meals on certain Sundays of the month to big blow out feasts for Easter and All Saints.

No, you won’t be excommunicated if you don’t come to these other activities. But why wouldn’t you want to come? Why do other voluntary commitments to ball teams and other cultural events take precedence over commitments to the church? Why are these other activities more important to you and your family? Why do you love these other things more than you love Christ’s church?

I’m not trying to lay a guilt trip on you. Those other activities are probably all fine in their proper places. My responsibility in contributing to the building of this Temple of God is, in part, to lead those under my care to examine their lives in terms of what God is wanting us, his church, to be. We are not to be looking at our participation in the church as merely an “activity,” a burdensome commitment among many other demands on us. We are not to think of Sunday worship as “punching our time card.” Our life as the church is a way of life. That life involves prioritizing the church and her life over other activities in life; that is, saying “No” to invitations to do other things because you have a prior commitment to give your life to the church. 

If we are not doing this, then what are we doing? If we aren’t living life together and building a culture, then we are just another volunteer organization with a pep talk and a snack on Sundays.

We Worship By Faith, Not By Fun

As you approach the outer court of the Tabernacle with an animal in tow, your journey has been filled with thoughts of what is about to happen. This little animal, an animal of which you may have grown fond, is about to be slaughtered in your place. There may even be some thoughts of turning back.

The priest meets you in the outer court somewhere around the bronze altar; this big, hollow box with four horns on the top in which a fire is constantly burning. You lay your hands on the head of the animal, ordaining it to stand in your place to be offered up. The knife is then taken in hand and the throat of the animal is cut. The blood that gushes from its throat, being pumped out by a heart taking its last beats, is caught in a basin so that it can be splashed on the sides of the altar. The smells of death fill your nostrils. The priest finishes flaying the animal, cutting it up into pieces, washing the parts, and then placing it in this bronze altar in a particular order.

Though after a while in a culture that practices this day-in and day-out you become somewhat accustomed to this, it is not really what you would consider fun. In fact, this is something of a chore. It is difficult at many levels. You can think of many other things that you would rather be doing with your time. So, why do you do it?

You do it because God commanded you to do it. You walk by faith, not by fun. You are created by God to be a worshiper, and this is what worshipers do.

In this New Covenant age in which none of these animal offerings is required of us, there are still things about worship that aren’t fun ... and aren’t designed to be. We cheapen the worship of God when we try to make everything fun so that people will be comfortable and want to come back. While we do not have the obligation to bring animals to sacrifice, worship is still the presentation of ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12.1-2). There are parts of our worship, consequently, that won’t be pleasant. All discipline for the present seems painful rather than joyful (Heb 12.11). Worship is a place where our lives are being disciplined to deny the sinful desires of our mortal bodies, fight against the sin all around us, and be shaped more in the likeness of God. Quite frankly, it isn’t always fun.

I suppose this is one reason why there are people who will spend their food or utility money on a concert or a sporting event, go and sit for hours (sometimes in inclement weather), and then tell you that they had a great time. However, an hour to an hour-and-a-half in worship is “too long,” “burdensome,” and, worst of all, “boring.” It’s just not fun. If it were fun, I would move heaven and earth to get there. I love to have fun.

There is nothing wrong with having fun. God, you might be surprised to learn, wants us to have fun. There is a time and place for it. God wants you to delight in his good gifts. Spend money on things your enjoy. Take trips. Go to those concerts. Hunt. Fish. Go to ball games. Watch movies. Have fun.

But as with any good gift of God, fun can become an idol. When fun becomes my god, I only do the things that are pleasant and avoid the unpleasant and inconvenient. Being confronted with sin in my life when I enter into worship, kneeling in humility and confessing my sin goes against the Law of Fun. Spending time with the people of God getting beyond the superficialities of life may also be a violation of the Law of Fun. Let’s always keep it light so as not to enrage Fun.

So, why would you do all of these things that, for the moment, are unpleasant? Because you walk by faith, not by fun. You are created to be a worshiper of God. God commands these things, not for our destruction, but for our good; for a more lasting, deeper, and abiding joy.

The smells of death at the Tabernacle from all the blood-letting begin to change. As the animal begins to be consumed in the flames of the altar, the smells, instead of repulsing you, begin to draw you to them. It is the smell of food that is nourishing and enjoyable. If this is a peace offering, then you, your family, the priest, and maybe some friends you’ve invited, take some of the meat along with some bread, and you all share a meal with God. The unpleasantries of your entrance have turned into the joy of communion. Mourning has turned to dancing. Unpleasantness has turned to true fun. It is a fun that can only be known when you worship by faith, trusting that God has your best interest at heart, and you persevere through the discomfort.

Calendar And Community

There was a time when time was not. God began to speak. The heavens and earth came into existence. The rhythms of life within the eternal Trinity began being imaged in the rhythms of the creation. Day one. Day two. Day three. Day four. Day five. Day six. Day seven. A steady, twenty-four hour rhythm turns into the rhythm of the week. The rhythm of weeks turn into the rhythms of months. The rhythms of months turn into rhythms of seasons. The rhythms of seasons turn into the rhythms of years. What started as a slow steady beat has turned into a symphony of layered rhythms; some consistent, some syncopated, but all moving the creation relentlessly forward.

In order to conduct this symphony, God put the sun, moon, and stars in the firmament-heaven. They separated the day from the night and were for signs and festival times. The heavenly lights were God’s authoritative clock to tell the world the time (Gen 1.14-19).

The world knowing the time wasn’t merely a point of information. These times would govern the rhythms of the entire creation. Creation was to stay in rhythm with God’s clock. Man himself as a part of creation was subject to these rhythms. 

Time is not something standing outside of man by which he measures the rhythms of creation. Time is a part of man, controlling waking and sleeping, eating patterns, hormone production, brain wave activity, and cell regeneration. We are creatures of time.

Being part of creation, time is an aspect of creation over which man as the image of God is to take dominion. In the old creation (the creation before Christ came), man in his childhood was given a schedule to keep. The sun, moon, and stars determined the calendar. When God separated Israel from the nations, he gave his young son a strict calendar to follow; daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and weeks of years. Israel would look to the sun, moon, and stars to learn what they were to be doing. 

However, when man matured he would not need a strict schedule set for him by his Father. The rhythms that he learned in childhood would inform the rhythms of his life, but he would have to create new rhythms in wisdom. In his childhood man learned (or should have learned) that time itself was to serve man in bringing the creation to God’s fullest purpose. God set up rhythms to bring man as individual and community into his presence. The calendar was one way in which God created community. As people shared rhythms of life, it drew them together. When the Sabbath was a regular, weekly convocation, the lives of the people were planned around it. When feasts were on the calendar, the lives of individuals and the community would have to adjust. Whatever the occasion, when the life of a group of people submitted to the same rhythms, it drew them together into community. 

Things have changed. The Sun of Righteousness has risen (Mal 4.2). He is the Ruler in the firmament-heaven and, therefore, the one who controls the calendar. But there is more. He has seated us with him in these heavenly places (Eph 1.20-22; 2.6) where we shine as stars (Phil 2.15). We, the heirs of Abraham, are now the stars in the firmament-heaven. We are all grown up in Christ. Our Father now let’s us determine the calendar. Having learned from our childhood, we know that we need rhythms. We can’t float along being pulled this way and that by those who would love to determine the direction of our lives by controlling our calendars. We understand that whatever sets the rhythms of our lives is moving us inevitably to be a certain type of people. So, we must take dominion of the calendar in our personal lives and as the church. We are to learn from the Scriptures what type of people we are to become and adjust our calendars to fit those rhythms that will move us there. 

As the catholic church we do this by sharing a calendar that is defined by the life of Christ. It is called the Church or Liturgical Calendar. All over the globe we identify ourselves with one another by the rhythms we share. Our shared time is a witness to the world that we are the church of Jesus Christ. 

Local churches also have calendars; calendars determined by the stars–the pastors–that Jesus holds in his right hand (Rev 1.6, 20). These calendars should be set so that the people of God have the opportunity to set the rhythm of life together in order to become what we ought to be as the church. We are not to be engaged in activity for activity’s sake. Our schedules as churches ought to be purposeful. Regular Lord’s Day worship is a given. It is the primary rhythm. But then there are other times of prayer, study, feasting, and serving the world outside the church that must also be incorporated. Pastors (and elders) have been given a stewardship of the household of God. Part of that stewardship in Christ is to set the rhythm for the church so that the church may move to maturity. 

The congregation has a responsibility as well. You are not to be asking, “What are the minimal requirements?” Because you are all grown up in Christ, you are to be asking, “What is the best for the church, for the kingdom, and for the world?” It is not always what is the most fun. Adjusting your calendar is a spiritual discipline, and discipline isn’t always fun. But it is the right thing to do. If we are going to be more than a Bible club that happens to have the Sacraments, if we are going to be the City of God with a full cultural life, then our calendars will not only reflect this, but they will shape us into that City.

Pentecost, Old And New

As Christians we understand the celebration of Pentecost as the time at which Jesus poured out his Spirit on the church. This, of course, is correct, but Pentecost was one of the three major Feasts on the Jewish calendar that was celebrated since the time of the giving of the Law. Pentecost itself was the Feast that corresponded with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Exodus 19.1 tells us that the children of Israel arrived at Sinai on the “third new moon after the people had gone out of Egypt” (i.e., the Passover). It was “on that day” that they came to Sinai and began preparations to receive the Law. Considering that Pentecost was fifty days after the Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread when the firstfruits sheaf was offered (got all that?), the chronology lining up the giving of the Law with Pentecost seems more than plausible. The Feast of Pentecost was, among other things, a commemoration of the giving of the Law at Sinai.

The correlations between the giving of the Law and the giving of the Spirit are quite informative in a number of ways. The giving of the Law and all of the imagery from the record of Scripture should be teased out in all of its glorious detail. However, it is the contrast between the two that is also a concern for the church. 

In a shocking move in Romans 6 and 7, Paul speaks of the Law and sin as doing many of the same things. Sin reigns (Rom 6.14). The Law reigns (Rom 7.1). We died to sin (Rom 6.2). We died to the Law (Rom 7.4). We are free from sin (Rom 6.7, 18, 22). We are free from the Law (Rom 7.6). Reading Paul one might think that the Law and the Sin were practically the same thing! Paul is aware of what he is saying and anticipates the question in Romans 7.7: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?” In sentences that follow he makes certain that those who hear this letter don’t equate the Law with sin. Sin uses the Law for nefarious purposes, but “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good” (Rom 7.12). 

While the Law is holy, it is not adequate to bring about freedom from the dominion of sin and death. What the Law did was not only to reinforce the death in the world created by sin, but sanction it as a divine arrangement. The Law exacerbated the death in the world by reinforcing and expanding the division set up by circumcision. This death was the division that the Law reinforced between Israel and the Gentiles. Humanity would continue to be ripped in half. Humanity would continue to live on in death ... and it was God’s Law that sanctioned this dominion of sin over mankind. This is at least an aspect of how the Law intensifies sin.

As long as the Law of God is in place, death rules. The Law anticipates life–resurrection from the dead–but the Law cannot give life. The Law, by its nature, can’t reunite the nations into one body because the Law is given to maintain the division.

But it was all a part of the divine scheme of grace. Where the sin abounded, grace did much more abound. God is using death as the means to deal with sin and ultimately bring resurrection. God takes the strongest weapons of the enemy and uses them for his own purposes. The Law that divinely codified death became the place sin would be dealt with so that resurrection and life for the world could come.

This is the contrast between old Pentecost and new Pentecost. Old Pentecost, while glorious, was a ministry of death (2Cor 3.6-7). New Pentecost is more glorious because it is a ministry of life. The Spirit poured out by the resurrected and ascended Christ unites the nations into one glorious body. He has made one body out of the two by abolishing the divisions created by the Law (Eph 2.14-15). While we may all be from different nations, speaking in different languages, we are one people of God in Christ Jesus.

The glories of the new Pentecost are proclaimed to the world when the church maintains the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4.2). The principalities and powers of the world are notified of the wisdom of God in this new world order through the church living out this unity (Eph 3.9-10). Pentecost is not merely another tick on the clock of the liturgical calendar. Pentecost is a calling, a calling to strive for the bond of peace in the family of Christ.

How Israel Got A New Husband

There are many ways to approach the telling of the story of Scripture. Various themes can be traced out from beginning to end that help you understand God and his relationship with his people. One theme that is prominent from the beginning to the end of Scripture is the theme of marriage. The Scriptures begin in a Garden with the Father providing his son a bride. The last chapters of Scripture end in a Garden-City with the bride of the Son coming down out of heaven. Everything in between contributes to the development of this relationship. The whole story of Scripture can be told from the perspective that God’s purpose was to create a bride for his Son whom his Son would glorify through the gift of the Spirit. 

This process of glorification for the bride takes a long and difficult road. The bride is not always faithful. Her betrothed must go to great trouble to deliver his bride in order to make her beautiful. One such place we see this is when the bride is in Egypt. God sent her down there to protect her and provide for her under Joseph. But eventually the bride started adopting the old ways of the Egyptians in whoring after her “husbands,” and YHWH gave them over to their oppression under Pharaoh. However, he delivered them. He brought them through the Sea and then to Sinai. At Sinai Israel became YHWH’s wife (cf. Jer 31.32; Ezek 16). YHWH entered a covenant with Israel. Their marriage was “under Law.”

Imagine the consternation of the Jews when Paul comes along and says, “You are no longer under Law.” This is tantamount to saying, “You Jews are no longer married to YHWH.” How can this be? Can YHWH forsake his covenant? Did he walk out on the marriage? If he did, how can he be trusted to be faithful? If he didn’t, then the gospel Paul is preaching is blasphemy. 

There is an explanation. Marriage covenants are binding as long as the husband lives. But if the husband dies, then the wife is no longer bound “by the law of the husband” (Rom 7.2-3). The marriage died “through the body of Christ.” That is, when Christ died, the husband died. Yes, that means that Christ Jesus is YHWH who was married to Israel at Sinai. He died so that the bride could be released from this marriage that kept her “under Law.” This “under Law” stage of life wasn’t the complete glorification of the bride. It wasn’t good for the bride to remain in this position. In order to move on to greater glorification, her marriage bound by the Law of Moses had to die. The husband willingly gave his life so that the bride, and therefore the marriage, could move to another state of glory. 

And it did. The husband didn’t forsake his bride. The one who died is also the one who is risen again so that Israel might be married to the resurrected Christ Jesus, sharing in his glory. That old marriage was always bound to end in death. Death is all that the old marriage could ultimately produce (Rom 7.5). That was its aim. It was a ministry of death (2Cor 3.7). It was a necessary death, but it was death nevertheless.

God’s intention for marriage was fruitful life. This could only be realized through death and resurrection into a new condition of marriage. Israel is now free to marry the resurrected Christ so that they might bear this fruit unto God. The marriage that Christ has now with his people is the marriage that God the Father intended for his Son all along.

This marriage is a mission, a mission to bear holy fruit. This holy fruit is produced by the Holy Spirit given to us and is evident in our relationships with one another as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where these are evident, the marriage is being fruitful. 

But our holy fruit is not limited to what we might think of as attitudes toward one another (though the fruit of the Spirit is not limited to attitudes either). The fruit of our bodies whether through reproduction or labor is also included in this holy fruit. Our marriages are under the lordship of Jesus. Whatever comes from our marriages, including children, belong to Jesus. Our children are holy fruit (cf. e.g., 1Cor 7.14). The product of our labor throughout the week is holy fruit. All of it is for the continued glorification of the marriage of Jesus and the church; it is fruit that is produced that will be handed over to the Father so that he might enjoy it in communion with us (cf. 1Cor 15.20-28). 

We have been called to cultivate this holy fruit. This is the purpose and promise of our relationship with Christ Jesus. Being united to the resurrected, never-to-die-again Christ, we labor with the confidence that our labor will be fruitful. It is not in vain (1Cor 15.58).