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.

Blessings,
Pastor

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.

Gratitude: The Fight Against Idolatry

Ingratitude is no peccadillo. Along with the refusal to give glory to God, ingratitude is the fountainhead of idolatry that eventually inundates a person and a society in the most degrading sins. Before speaking about how people who think themselves to be wise become fools or how God gives people over to their sinful lusts, Paul tells us that they are first ungrateful (Rom 1.21). Ingratitude was evident in the first sin of Adam and Eve, and that story lies behind much of what Paul says in Romans 1. God gave the man and woman every tree of the field for food and even the Tree of Life at which they would meet with him. They had everything they needed and more. But God withheld one tree from them. Their ingratitude for all that God had given them stirred up discontent that focused their attention on that which God had withheld. The rest is history.

The basic posture of ingratitude is a pride that foolishly declares independence from God, despising him and his good gifts. You have decided that God doesn’t deserve gratitude. He is not really good in himself or good to you. You declare that you don’t need him while you breathe his air. He doesn’t deserve your respect or love. The rejection of God’s goodness is not without its severe consequences. To reject God’s goodness in ingratitude is to reject God’s design for you and the creation. It is the refusal to respond in agreement and submission to God’s own declaration that his design for creation is “good.” Consequently, you go your own way.

Ingratitude reveals the deep problem of sin in man of his hatred for the very life of God himself. God lives eternally as Father, Son, and Spirit, with each member of the Holy Trinity giving mutual respect and gratitude to one another. Jesus’ giving thanks to the Father on a number of occasions throughout his life revealed to us the eternal relationship of the Trinity. Each recognizes the gifts given by the others and responds to them with due honor and gratitude. Throughout eternity the Father gives to the Son and the Son responds by giving back to the Father his thanks. The Son gives to the Spirit, and the Spirit responds by giving back to the Son his thanks. On and on it goes. It is a community life characterized by gratitude.

Created in God’s image, man is called not only imitate this life with one another but to participate in the family of God himself. We are called to acknowledge the goodness of God to us and join in the eternal dance of gratitude. Our ingratitude is a revelation that we hate the life of God and want nothing to do with it.

We who have been brought into the family of God, united to Christ by the Spirit, are to be characterized as grateful people. It is one of our distinguishing marks as the people of God. Indeed, the meal that forms us into the body of Christ (1Cor 10.16-17) is a meal of thanksgiving. We are the thanksgiving family, bound together by our mutual gratitude for what God has done in Christ.

The discipline of gratitude is a perpetual guard against the idolatry that lingers in our hearts and is always looking for an opportunity to make another idol. Gratitude refocuses us on reality; the reality that our lives are dependent upon God at every moment. Gratitude cultivates contentment; we focus on what God has given us instead of that which he has withheld. Gratitude is a roadblock on the road of depravity.

It is not always easy to be grateful. We live in a world in which we are surrounded by the effects of sin. There are times that we hurt because of our sin or the sin of others. There are times that our mere mortality is evident in illness or death. We live with pain. Yet Paul tells us in Ephesians 5.10 that we are to be “giving thanks always for all things to the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul is in no way denying the hard realities, telling us to “put on a smile even though it hurts.” He is telling us to keep everything in the context of the larger narrative. We are those who trust that God is good and has good purposes even through evil. Though evil is not good and must never be declared good, we can give thanks even in the midst of difficult times because God has a good purpose for us.

So, this is the conclusion of the matter: give thanks.

Confessing Jesus As Lord

Writing into a Roman context to tell people that the proper response to the gospel was to confess “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10.9) would have been provocative. “Lord” was the designation given to Caesar. Caesar was Lord and all other loyalties were subservient to him. You may pray your prayers to the god of your choice, but at the end of the day, when push came to shove, your god must submit to the will of Caesar. Everything, including your loyalties to your gods, must serve the greater purpose of the Empire and, more particularly, Caesar himself. To declare that there was a loyalty that was higher than Caesar to which one must submit was subversive to the unity of the Empire. If one dared to challenge Caesar in this regard, the full weight of Rome would come down upon him. Many of our fathers and mothers who confessed Jesus as Lord endured the consequence of challenging Caesar.

But Paul’s call was much deeper than the present empire situation. Sure, this was the situation into which he wrote. The Caesar situation was the challenge of his day where the rubber met the road concerning the implications of allegiance to Christ. However, in the section of the letter to the Romans in which this call to confession is found, Paul is speaking concerning the Jewish situation and their allegiances. Caesars come and go. Empires rise and fall. But the Jews worshiped the one true and living God: YHWH. Echoing what he has already claimed in Romans 9.5–that Jesus is God over all, blessed forever–Paul attributes to Jesus the word commonly used to refer to YHWH in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint): kyrios. Jesus is YHWH, the one true and living God, and, therefore, Lord over all. Failure to worship him is to reject the God of Abraham.

Confession of Jesus as Lord in response to the gospel changes everything for Jew and Gentile. Jesus has been declared Lord of the world by God the Father. Every area of life–from my individual life to the structures of nations–belongs to him and is to be conscious submission to him.

Consequently, the call of the gospel is an all-or-nothing commitment. Either a person comes to submit to Jesus as the one true and living God, having his life arranged under his lordship, or he is an enemy of Christ. If you were a Jew living in the first century, that meant giving up the old distinctions of he Law, confessing that Christ was the end of the Law (Rom 10.4). If you were a pagan Gentile living in the first century, that meant giving up your idols and not merely adding Jesus to the pantheon of gods to be worshiped. For all in the first century it meant that Jesus’ lordship over your life superceded every other lordship in the world, including the lordship of Caesar.

For twenty-first century Americans, the call of the gospel remains the same though the situations have changed. Confessing Jesus as Lord means the re-ordering of the way that I think and live. It means that no other loyalty supercedes loyalty to Jesus. All other loyalties are subservient to and are to serve the cause of Christ and his kingdom. We cannot confess the American creed that we are all “Americans first” and then Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. Our allegiance to Jesus is not a slave to the “indivisible” nation. Friends and family, though good things, can never become idols that take my primary loyalty so that I will disobey Christ Jesus. Money or some position in the world cannot be the god that controls my life. I must have my thinking and the order of my life arranged under the lordship of Jesus.

Submitting to Jesus’ lordship is not an optional extra to the call of the gospel. It is the necessary response to the gospel. Because Jesus loves us and knows that any idol we serve as equal to or above him will destroy us, he cannot allow us to serve these other idols along side him. Though we all progress in different ways and at various rates in our growth in our understanding of Jesus’ lordship in our lives, submission to that lordship is not optional no matter our situation. Whether you are turning from a lifestyle of sexual immorality or covetousness, all idols must be forsaken. Idols of the lower class and idols of the upper class, idols of Africa or idols of America, must all be forsaken. If and when people forsake these idols, then and only then is the promise of salvation theirs.

The Right Way To Be Right

All men long to be justified. That is, all men long to be in the right, to be vindicated. In our sin we seek this vindication in various ways and from different sources. We need approval. We need to know that we are accepted by someone. So we look to certain people to tell us that we are approved and accepted. It may be parents, friends, co-workers, or a myriad of other people. Whatever they tell us to do or we perceive that they want us to do, we will strive to do whatever it takes to gain their acceptance; to hear from them, “Well done.”

This longing for justification or righteousness is woven into the fabric of who we are as images of God. God created us as his images to be “in the right” with him. We were created to be a part of his family; to love what he loves, hate what he hates, and to share his agenda. As we would participate in the Divine Family culture, working in love together with the Father, Son, and Spirit,  we would hear from the Father, “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Vindication.

But sin has caused us to seek our justification from other sources and in perverted ways. We still want justification from God, but we want it on our terms. We set up ways to be justified by God that are contrary to what he has revealed. Instead of submitting to what God has revealed in Christ Jesus, we have a better way to order our relationship with God and, consequently, with one another and the world around us. We have a way of justification of which God will surely approve.

These ways of justification take on many forms. There is that classic form with which many of us are probably familiar: merit-based justification. If our good works outweigh our bad works, then God will count us as his children. If we can go through the right motions, do the proper religious things, we will appease God and he will have to accept us.

Merit-based justification is one way people try to be justified by God, but this is not the only form that works righteousness (that is, justification by works) takes. Works righteousness is the establishment of any way of seeking vindication from God that runs contrary to and refuses to submit to what God has revealed. Works righteousness says, “I know better than God how to order my life and the world around me. I like my way better than his.” Works righteousness says, “All I need is to know right doctrines, but I don’t have to worry about loving my brothers.” Works righteousness says, “I can be sexually immoral and still be vindicated by God because I prayed the sinner’s prayer and have been baptized.” Works righteousness says, “I am right with God even though I haven’t forgiven my brothers.”

What is perverted about works righteousness as it appears in these ways is that it uses the word “grace” to cover its tracks. My life can be lived in total opposition to God’s revealed will, but God is gracious. “Grace” becomes a way to set up our own way of being righteous in rebellion against God.

In contrast to works righteousness is faith righteousness. Faith righteousness seeks vindication from God by fully submitting to what God has revealed. The righteousness which is by faith says, “Whatever God reveals will shape my thinking and the way I live my life.” If God says that forgiveness of my sins and right standing with him is in Christ alone, then I submit to that and know that I am accepted by God in Christ alone. If God says that I need to love my brothers, then I will strive to love my brothers. If God says to keep myself from sexual immorality, then I will strive to keep myself from sexual immorality. If God says, “Forgive,” then I will forgive. Faith righteousness accepts and submits to whatever God has revealed and pledges full allegiance to the Divine Family. The righteousness by faith is the faith that accepts God’s righteousness in total: forgiveness of sins and right standing in Christ alone as well as being in line with God’s agenda for my life.

We all long to be justified. But there is only one right way to be in the right: the righteousness by faith revealed in Christ Jesus.

Loving the Idea of the Church or Loving the Church?

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but this is the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Celebrations are going on all around the world, and rightly so. Though the cause for and the consequences of the Reformation are sad in many respects, there is much for which we can be thankful. It is sad that the Western Church fell into such moral and doctrinal error that such a radical surgery had to occur. But we are grateful that God had mercy on us by delivering us from the errors that corrupted the church. It is sad that the unintended consequence of the Reformation was the splintering of the church into denominations. But we are grateful that God is sanctifying his church through our differences and will one day bring the entire church back together in perfect unity in accordance with the prayer of our Savior.

Much has been done. There is still much to do. As Protestant churches are infused once again with this sense of our historical identity, it can be a temptation to get into a “reformation mode” that is characterized by a zeal for what the church ought to be, falling in love with the idea or ideal of the church, but not loving the church as she is.

There is nothing wrong with ideals. They are necessary to keep us pressing forward. Through the history of the world God himself has laid out the standards for which his people ought to strive. Through his direct commands as well as imaging his people in the Tabernacle, Temple, and the New Jerusalem (Rev 21–22), we are given the standards, the ideals, for which we are to strive.

But sometimes we fall in love with the idea of the church instead of loving the church itself; the church as she is and not just what she ought to be. We imagine this place of perfect peace and harmony, where everyone is doing what is right, and we are laughing and joyful all the time. We love that place. But that is not the church we are a part of. It is out there somewhere, we are sure, but it is not the church of which I am presently a part.

In our love for the ideal, we can lose sight of the fact that peace and harmony in a sinful world come through forgiveness of the sins of others and their forgiveness of my sins. Joy in the church comes through longsuffering with one another, bearing the pain and hurt of, with, and from others. We servants are not greater than our Lord. If he had to endure suffering for the joy that was set before him (Heb 12.1-2), how much more will we have to endure suffering in order to enter joy?

Loving the church involves loving both God’s ideal for the church and the church as she is right now in history. Loving God’s ideal for the church keeps us encouraging one another to press forward. Loving God’s church as she is right now keeps us remembering that this is a lifelong process. We must be patiently content with where we are but never satisfied.

If you find yourself always discontent with the church, restless, nothing is ever good enough, not satisfied with progress, always thinking that some other church situation must be better, it might be that you are more in love with the idea of the church rather than loving the church itself. Sure, there is always reformation that needs to take place in the church. Part of that reformation might just be learning contentment with and loving the people who sit with you in worship every Sunday.

The Necessity of Beauty

We live in a terribly efficient world. Time and space must be practical, functional. All the frills that remove from the bottom line, that aren’t absolutely necessary to what we are producing, must be discarded. Consequently, many people sit in maximally utilized, monochrome office space just functioning. We are like machines putting out products. The last thing a functional machine needs is beauty. Beauty is not productive. Beauty is not efficient. It is wasteful; a luxury at best. Our money can be spent better elsewhere.

The church has not escaped this cultural trap. Many of us Protestants meet in warehouses and strip malls, sometimes out of necessity to be sure, but sometimes because it is efficient. The money we make is better used to feed the poor or send to foreign missionaries. Both inside and out our architecture and art scream that beauty is not important to us.

In the midst of a hungry and lost world, God is wasteful; or so it would seem from our generally accepted standards of wastefulness. In the middle of the wilderness, with a people who didn’t even have a permanent place to call “home,” God tells Moses to make his brother, Aaron, garments for glory and beauty (Exod 28.2). These garments were made of the most expensive fabrics, rare and carefully crafted stones, and woven throughout with gold threads. What a waste. Couldn’t these things have been sold and given to the poor? While the world is dying and going to hell, God has his people making a glorious tent and beautiful clothes for a high priest.

God doesn’t do anything that isn’t necessary. The beauty he prescribes is necessary for his people and the world. There is no waste in beauty.

We were created to make things beautiful. In the beginning God told man to take dominion over the earth, making it fruitful in every way. God gave man the pattern in creating a beautiful garden. Man, in turn, was to make the world a place of glory and beauty. We and the world were to move from glory to glory; from beauty to beauty. Beauty is the fruit of a people who are maturing in righteousness. The movement of the Scriptural story attests to this truth. In the beginning man is naked and in a relatively undeveloped world. The last images of Scripture are of a beautifully clothed people in a fully developed city, a city that is the product of the dominion of Christ and his people.

Jesus himself reveals this progress in his own life. We hear in Isaiah that he begins with “no beauty that we should desire him.” But in the Revelation, he is a glorious figure. We and the world are transformed in the likeness of Christ’s transformation. We are moving from beauty to beauty.

Transformation of the world into the beautiful is the calling of the Christian church as she matures. Developing beauty is non-optional for the faithful.

Beauty reflects our progress in time, but beauty also reflects our future, revealing our hope, what we will be. Beauty draws us into this future and gives us hope. If you have ever been overwhelmed by beauty, you know what I mean. Beauty overwhelms us; not in a condemning way or in a way that leaves us at a distance. Beauty draws us in and calls us up to be better than we are. We are inspired by beauty. In the midst of an ugly world, beauty is one aid among many to refresh the soul.

Making things beautiful is an exercise in faith. Creating beauty declares that there is more to this life than an efficient, machine-like existence. Creating beauty says that we serve a beautiful God, and we are becoming more and more like him.

Though beautiful art and architecture can never do it by itself, beauty is integral in calling the Christian community to faith. God creates garments of glory and beauty for Aaron so that he and the people he represents will “live up to them.” Beauty says, “This is who you were made to be. Now, live beautifully.” Show the world this beauty, and they will be drawn to it.

Charles Klamut summarizes all of this very well when he writes:

    ‘Beauty will save the world.’ That remains to be seen. But beauty has saved me, and continues to do so. My experience is that I need saving; it is not a luxury. Beauty saves. Or, to put it more precisely, beauty points me to the One who saves, who is Beauty itself. Beauty is a necessity, not a luxury. Beauty moves us, awakens us, provokes us, bringing freshness and newness to hearts that have too easily grown old and stale. A luxury is something extra, added on after duties are complete. But beauty is not something extra, it is what comes first. Because without beauty, the duties prove too hard and, eventually, seem pointless. An old, tired soul cannot move itself, cannot sustain itself. It ultimately fails in its tasks.  Beauty renews the soul, pointing us ever back to our origins and our destiny, making life begin again. May God never leave us bereft of anointed artists, prophets, and poets of the transcendent, who will keep wounding our hearts with nostalgia for the infinite destiny which alone matches the proportions of our great hearts.(Fr. Charles Klamut; http://www.hprweb.com/2013/01/beauty-a-necessity-not-a-luxury/ )

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).