Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Be the Church

One of the most basic characteristics of God’s people is that they gather.

Not a revolutionary or new statement, but it continually needs to be said. This isn’t me writing as a paid representative of the Institution.[1] I’m putting proverbial pen to digital paper because of something I noticed this last week studying Esther.

In Esther 8:11, the new second-in-command of the Persian Empire (Mordecai the Jew) writes a law with the king’s authority granting, among other things, the right to assemble (the Hebrew verb קהל is used). The assembly of the Jews is an important repeated theme at the turnaround of their fortunes in this curious little tale.[2]

“Assembly” (קהל) is “Church” (εκκλησια).
This word (קהל), both its verb and noun forms, is important for a theological reason. What would happen to this word when the world started speaking Greek and the Old Testament was translated into that language? I thought I knew the answer, but wanted to check. I opened my Hebrew/Aramaic Index to the Septuagint (a riveting action story!) and confirmed my suspicions.[3] The word קהל, when it was translated into Greek, becomes εκκλησια, which is the word for “Church” in the New Testament.

Still with me?

Jesus is the first Person to use the word “Church” in the New Testament. In a short space of text, He gives us both the foundational definitions of the Gathering means:
·         In Matthew 16:13-20, it is the universal body of all those who share God the Father’s heaven-given (not earth-invented) confession of the Son. Jesus identifies Himself as continual Builder of this assembly, and says that hell cannot stop it.
·         In Matthew 18:15-20, it is a local body, as well, of individuals who are part of what’s described in 16:13-20, but also have a definite membership with standards of ethics and the ability to discipline.[4]

Jesus will, through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of His apostles, fill both of these foundational statements in throughout the writings of the rest of the New Testament.[5]

Even though Jesus is the first Person to use the word “Church/church” in the New Testament, His statements in Matthew 16 and 18 are not new. When He says εκκλησια, He is drawing upon an idea with a lot of precedent in the Old Testament word קהל. Folks will usually start with the Greek word εκκλησια, read its definition in a lexicon (it literally means “called-out ones”), and sadly build a theology that minimizes or eliminates the vital importance of the Gathering. No! Εκκλησια, the Greek word used in the New Testament for the idea called “Church,” is built upon קהל, the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for “assembly,” or “gathering.” The Lord of the Church didn’t innovate the idea that day in “the district of Caesarea Philippi” almost 2,000 years ago. He was laying claim to His authority over a reality that had been happening since the days of the founding of the old covenant through Moses at Mount Sinai after the Exodus! This is why Stephen, with the last words he is allowed to say on this earth, has no problem dropping the εκκλησια word (the one used for “Church/church” in the rest of the N.T.) to describe the old covenant group that has Moses as its leader: “This Moses…is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.’  This is the one who was in the congregation [here it is: εκκλησια] in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you” (Acts 7:35-38).

Jesus isn’t creating in Matthew 16 and 18. He’s claiming something that’s already there is His to rule, and it’s His to define.

None of this is new teaching at all. My point is not to share new information that no one’s shared before. The reason for this post is to get us away from that lexicon theology that looks up εκκλησια, sees its basic definition as “called-out ones,” and builds a theology (‘cause we all have theology, my friends, even if you don’t like it!) that says, “‘church’ means ‘called-out ones,’ so I don’t have to attend the get-togethers of the ‘institutional’ church to be a part of the true church.”

Εκκλησια is not a key to missions-at-the-expense-of-gathering, but is built upon קהל, a previously-existing idea that means “gathering.”

The Church gathers. It’s what it means to be the Church. You gather. Yes, we go. Yes, we are missional everywhere we are. But most foundationally we gather as Christ-confessing people in identifiable local bodies to teach each other to obey Christ’s commandments (and there’s a lot to that). The Church gathers, and always has.

Let’s look at a few uses of the verb קהל in the Law of Moses:
·         “…Moses assembled [קהל] all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and said to them, ‘These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do…’” (Exodus 35:1).
·         “…the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘…assemble [קהל] all the congregation at the doorway of the tent of meeting.’ So Moses did just as the Lord commanded him. When the congregation was assembled at the doorway of the tent of meeting, Moses said to the congregation, ‘this is the thing which the Lord has commanded to do.’” (Leviticus 8:1-3).
·         “So Moses and Aaron took these men who had been designated by name, and they assembled [קהל] all the congregation together on the first of the second month. Then they registered by ancestry in their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, head by head, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. So he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:17-19).
·         “Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Assemble [קהל] the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children’” (Deuteronomy 4:10).
·         Assemble [קהל] the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the Lord your God…” (Deuteronomy 31:12,13).

Did you hear the “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” part of the Jesus’ “Great Commission” to His disciples (Matthew 28:20) in those passages? Oh, beloved, this is what it means to “be the Church”! We gather. We hear and learn together, and hold each other accountable in doing this, and we go out to live what we have heard. The going out and obeying is not “being the Church,” but the assembly to hear what to obey is “being the Church”! This is a theology built not on a lexicon definition, but the whole Bible!

Gather. It’s what the Church does.

[1] “Institution” is the new bad word to describe organized, structured gatherings of the local Church. The descriptor doesn’t bother me. The Church was instituted by Jesus, and is therefore “a thing instituted,” what would be called an “institution.” One of the things He did when He instituted it by His apostles was give it organizational structure (including leadership and membership), limitations, rules/commandments, and purposes/commission. Fits the “institution” definition to me. Negative labels are tools of people with agendas. What’s the agenda here, I wonder?
[2] In fact, other than Numbers, Esther contains the highest number of uses of the verb קהל, “gather.” See 8:11; 9:2,15,16,18.
[3] Takamitsu Muraoka (Baker Academic, 1998).
[4] I say “definite membership,” because when Jesus says, “tell it to the church,” it doesn’t seem likely He has the global phenomenon in mind. Whoever this local, definite group is, it has regulatory authority over individual members’ access to participating in the assembly. Matthew 16 does not describe an amorphous, universal church idea (but doesn’t contradict it, either).
[5] Most of the New Testament addresses the local congregation, or assembly. Their truths can be universally applied, but the books of the N.T. are written to specific local congregations, and are meant to be applied by all other specific local congregations. Statements about the “universal church” are present in the N.T., but are definitely in the minority.

Monday, November 9, 2015

I Love You, But Your Flowers Stink

Starbucks™ takes snowflakes off their red holiday cups and does not use the phrase “Merry Christmas.”

Christians freak out.


Just a reminder (again) of one of my rules of life: do not be surprised when non-Christians (or companies owned and run by non-Christians) do not act like Christians. They cannot act like Christians and should not act like Christians. If you got your wish, they’d look Christian on the outside but would still be unconverted and on their way to hell. The counterpoint to this life-rule is: always be surprised when Christians act like non-Christians. Always.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written [in Habakkuk 2:4b], ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16,17).

Snowflakes aren’t the Gospel. Neither is Santa Claus, red cups, or the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Neither is Christendom, a “Christian culture,” or a “Christian nation” (three ideas not found in the New Testament).

I meet with a group of men on Thursday mornings. We’re reading slowly through Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. We meet in a local coffeehouse. The barista is a New Age sort of guy who listens to Peruvian flute music and is seeking divinity through natural medicines. I have no idea what that last part means, though I ask him and listen when he tells me. We call each other by first names. I offer to pray for concerns he mentions and always try to inject Gospel views on things he brings up. I don’t remember if he says “Merry Christmas” or not. I will not yell it at him if he doesn’t next month.

Only the Gospel saves. A “Merry Christmas” culture does not. I say that as someone who loves the Christmas season more than all of you put together. We will pass out bags of candy (with a Gospel tract in each bag) at our town's Christmas parade at the end of this month. Next month we'll go caroling in two towns in our county. We aren't trying to establish Christian culture. We are engaging our community with the hope of presenting the Gospel to individuals, praying the Holy Spirit uses that presentation to save souls through faith in Christ. They can decorate their cups however they want and use whatever greetings they want. I don't care about their culture or business. I care about their lost souls.

By the way, some of you wanting to exert pressure on Starbucks were the same ones rallying to Chik-fil-A’s defense a few years ago. And then Hobby Lobby. I was with you on all those things, but where’s your freedom of speech, freedom of liberty, and desire for a free marketplace now? I thought we believed business owners could follow their conscience. I had these same thoughts long ago when my denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) tried to boycott Disney. Meanwhile, it’s quite a struggle to get our resource company (Lifeway) to keep from selling heresy.

By the way, the same folks wanting to build a Christian culture have (in my estimation) pretty lax views on other cultural issues (Halloween, entertainment choices, alcohol, and the setting aside of the Lord’s Day). Consistency, anyone? The 50’s you’re trying to rebuild wouldn’t approve of some of your choices, my friend.

Anyway, I had one of those days last week. One moment I (jokingly) felt like an awesome life coach. Then I sat with an elderly woman in an assisted living facility for an hour while she told me repeatedly that her husband had just stepped into the next room (he had passed away two days earlier). A bit after than (same morning) I tried to counsel someone with some issues I’ve dealt with – how do you counsel someone into a maturity it’s taken you decades to barely reach? Still determined to stay positive (life-coaching myself, I suppose), I decided to bring my bride home a 12-pack of Coke and some roses. Coke, check. All the roses, though, looked tired and wilted. I grabbed some stargazer lilies and brought them with the Coke instead. Guess what: stargazer lilies have a pretty strong smell. After a day of torturing the family, I relocated my stinky love flowers outside our dining room window. My bride could see them, but no one was given a headache. Sometimes, in our desire to do a good thing, we unintentionally cause harm to the household.

She appreciated the flowers, but nobody in the house enjoyed the smell. I appreciate your desire to fix our broken society/culture/nation, but don’t care for the fact that you’re using the wrong flowers to do it. Yours stink. Your militancy for Christian culture is missing the Gospel. I'm sorry for my snarky tone (snark takes no maturity or skill, and it comes way too naturally to me), but I have lost friends. I work continually to maintain relationship with them and am thinking of them in every word I say in person or post online. You should see what they're saying about your misplaced priorities and wrong facts. It breaks my heart because this is a stumbling block to them ever receiving the Gospel. Jesus said pretty serious things about being a stumbling block.

Only the Gospel saves. It doesn’t save a culture or company, but individuals, “the Jew first and also…the Greek.” Read the Book again. Remember the Gospel. Say it out loud. Write it down. Tell it to each other. Tell it to the barista instead of yelling “Merry Christmas” to him or her.

Only the Gospel saves.

Only the Gospel saves.
* * * * * * *
By the way, a sister in the Lord posted this perspective-giving pic. I concur.

Another sister posted this. Just as true.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Another Halloween Post.

It seems like the pro-Halloween articles multiply exponentially every year.

As for me and my house, we’re still not doing Halloween.

It’s not because we don’t believe in “fun” or dress-up. We do that to some degree about 80% of the days of the year. Myself included.

It isn’t because we are anti-evangelistic or are against being missional. We have developed and nurture relationships with non-Christian (and marginally Christian) neighbors and community members.

I'm not anti-culture. Tomorrow's my birthday. My presents are on the table in the dining room wrapped in Stars Wars paper. I wish I could be in Taos for their jazz festival at the end of November honoring the late Frank Morgan. I love listening to Frank Morgan. I will watch college football this afternoon. Culture rocks.

Yes, I’ve seen the dozen articles that argue Halloween to be a “Christian holiday.” Here’s the thing about that: Martin Luther.

You see, I admit only one Christian holiday, strictly speaking: the Lord’s Day. Happens every week. Any other day I choose to have any involvement with is not because the Roman Catholic Church has declared it a holiday. I’m not Roman Catholic. 498 years ago today, Martin Luther unknowingly fired the first figurative shot of the Protestant Reformation. So, not only do I not observe Halloween (or All Hallows’ Eve), but I also don’t observe All Saints’ Day. I’m in the Southwest U.S. I don’t observe El Día de los Muerto, either. I don’t go to Mass. Don’t do Ash Wednesday. Don’t do saints’ feast days. I am, by my convictions from the Bible and historical inheritance from the Protestant Reformation, decidedly and annoyingly thrilled to be a Baptist.

So, no. I don’t think Halloween is “Christian.”[1] If we wanted to observe it, we would be free to by our convictions. No “Church” has told us to or told us not to.

Your kids sure are adorable in their costumes, and I love seeing the pictures. I’ve got my Santa Claus hat on right now, both to keep my ears warm and because we put our Christmas tree up last night. Because we can. That may seem weird, but lots of people will paint their faces as skulls or zombies or whatever today. I think that’s weird.

For us, it was Christmas lights, The Polar Express, the first fireplace fire of the season, and cocoa last night. Not because it was a “Christian holiday,” but because we wanted to. I don’t share this with my kids (maybe I should), but I cannonball dive into enough darkness in other people’s lives during the year as their pastor, trying by the grace of God to fulfill Galatians 6:2 in love. I don’t need to make darkness a comic and play with it tonight. Some people might find release in doing so. Not me. Children’s funerals, spousal infidelity, aging issues, addictions, and just plain old run-of-the-mill depression are enough for me. I am haunted enough and praying for countless spiritually dead people – pretend hauntings and the undead aren’t fun to me. So this is the confession: I might not be primarily sheltering my children (though, as my wife says, I wouldn’t let them watch a horror movie, so why would I open the door to a stranger with a bloody axe in his head?). It could be that I am choosing against the play-acting darkness because I’ve seen enough this year in the lives of people I love and shepherd. I don’t need or want any more. The phone could ring at any moment. I’ll seek my “fun” elsewhere.

Maybe I’ll grow out of it. Probably not. I don’t have to. Martin Luther. This is Reformation Day. I am freed from the Roman Catholic calendar, and bound only (in my theological tradition) to the Lord’s Day. Whatever else I choose to participate in is in Christian liberty of conscience (Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 ought to have some bearing on how we treat each other on days like this).

My Christmas tree’s up. Earlier than ever this year. It’s not a “Christian” tree. It’s a fun, light, sweet thing that’s now a little funnier and quirkier because we did it on Halloween Eve (All Hallows’ Eve, Eve?).

So I’m going to be just as fun-loving (I do love fun) and “missional” (the word used to guilt non-participating Christians into Halloween-ing) today as I was yesterday and will be tomorrow. Not because a day is “Christian,” but because I am, and this is what I am called to do every day wherever I am and in whatever I’m doing.

Let me finish with my favorite of Luther’s 95 Theses, number 62: “The true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”
House decorated for Halloween, costume ready, coffee good.

[1] Of course, there is the sense in which all things are Christian, since they were created through Christ (John 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 8:7; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2) and are maintained at every moment by Christ (Hebrews 1:3).

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Exalted Fountain of Our Praise and Obedience

“For the choir director; on a stringed instrument. A Psalm of David.
Hear my cry, O God;
Give heed to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For You have been a refuge for me,
A tower of strength against the enemy.
Let me dwell in Your tent forever;
Let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings. Selah.
For You have heard my vows, O God;
You have given me the inheritance of those who fear Your name” (Psalm 61:1-5).

“You will prolong the king’s life;
His years will be as many generations.
He will abide before God forever;
Appoint lovingkindness and truth that they may preserve him.
So I will sing praise to Your name forever,
That I may pay my vows day by day” (61:6-8).

Verses 6-8 is a choral intercession the Holy Spirit gave the Church through David for the King. We have only one King: the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-46; 28:18; Luke 19:38; John 18:37; Ephesians 1:20-22; Revelation 1:5; 11:15; 17:14; 19:16).

The Father lifted up His Son from the grave to the eternal throne (Acts 2:24; 3:15,26; 10:40; 13:30; Romans 4:24; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 2:12; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 1:21). We sing of the Father’s doing this work in His Son the King: “You will prolong the King’s life; His years will be as many generations. He will abide before God forever; appoint lovingkindness and truth that they may preserve Him...”

What is the result of this for our lives as the Church? So [כן] I will sing praise to Your name forever, that I may pay my vows day by day.” The Father’s exalting the throne of His resurrected Son enables us to sing forever of His glory. We cannot, would not sing apart from the Father’s exalting of the Son. We cannot sing forever apart from the enthronement of the resurrected Son.

Out of our union with the resurrected heavenly King we sing forever. And out of this we are further enabled to remain faithfully obedient to Him. It doesn't get more practical than this.

Our praise and obedience are the fruits of the act of God in exalting His Son. It is not of us. We cannot boast in ourselves. It is the divinely gifted “inheritance of those who fear [His] name.”

Sing. Serve. Pray.

Until we’re Home:
“Let me dwell in Your tent forever;

Let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings.”

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Law, Prophets, and a Lesson About Gathering

“And you will say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD, “If you will not listen to Me, to walk in My law [תורה] which I have set before you, to listen to the words of My servants the prophets, whom I have been sending to you again and again, but you have not listened; then I will make this house like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse to all the nations of the earth”’” (Jeremiah 26:4-6).

Ask most people what prophets do, and they will tell you that prophets foretell the future. I have been convinced for a long time that such an understanding of the prophets and biblical prophecy misses a crucial message of the biblical Prophets (and those who echo them in the New Testament). I contend that the Prophets applied the Law of Moses to their audiences in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They communicated using language meant to move hard hearts – powerful language with dramatic imagery and edgy language. Their “future telling,” when it is present at all (not nearly as often as we’ve grown accustomed to think), is merely an application of the curses for covenant violation in the Law (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). The Law promised invasion by a foreign army and deportation. The Prophets, in seeing covenant violation among the people, promised this would come. And it did.

Learning one thing revolutionized my reading of the Bible, and that one thing is seeing parallelism.[1] The Hebrew language is not highly technical (like Greek) – the Old Testament writers say one thing several different ways to further illuminate their meaning.

Consider this parallelism:
  • “...listen to Me, to walk in My law [תורה] which I have set before you...”
  • “...to listen to the words of My servants the prophets, whom I have been sending to you again and again...”

Both of these phrases are introduced with the verb “listen” (שמע), setting up the parallelism as clear as possible for us. Both “law” and “the words of My servants the prophets” are the words of the LORD to His covenant people.

From the standpoint of the doctrine of the Bible, the Law is foundational. The New Testament shows us the Lord Jesus and His apostles continually citing the Law as authoritative teaching. The Prophets of the Old Testament rely on the Law in the same way. There is no fullness to your understanding of later passages of Scripture if you aren’t familiar with what came before. Sadly, most people’s reading of the Prophets leans forward rather than backward. I find the same to be true in most attempts to interpret Revelation.

The LORD, speaking through Jeremiah, places His Law and Prophets in parallelism.

False prophets do not speak the words of the LORD (applying His Law), but speak their own words. “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD” (23:16). “‘Behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who use their tongues and declare, “The Lord declares”’” (23:31).

Prophecy is the Spirit-empowered application of the Law to the lives of God’s people with the goal of moving them to repentance from their sin before the Lord. I would use this definition for most of New Testament “prophecy,” as well (especially as described in Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12,14; Ephesians 4:11). We would put it under the category “preaching” these days, though the Bible seems to have parsed the categories of prophetic preaching of the Law for conviction, evangelistic preaching of the Gospel for the giving of grace (to believers and non-believers), and the teaching/explanation of the Bible. We need all of these in our spiritual diet continually.

The “Prophets” of the Old Testament are inerrant and inspired, and serve as models/examples for preachers in the Church. We are, as part of our calling, preach the commands of God, leaning on the Holy Spirit’s help, to move the people of God to repentance and obedience...and we are to do this without abandoning the giving of the grace of the Gospel or the explanation of the meaning and theology of the text.

It is foolish to believe we can accomplish this in a 15-minute talk filled with anecdotes and stories. It is woefully naive to believe attending the gathering of the Church for one hour a week can adequately fill the God-intended purpose of teachers/preachers in the Church. Does your Church have an evening service, a mid-week Bible study, other small groups that study the Word? Are you a part? These are the means by which God speaks His Word to His people through the power of His Holy Spirit.

We need to be convicted unto repentance and obedience, fed grace unto communion with God in Christ, and trained in the nature, character, ways, and thoughts of God through the explanation of His Word. This cannot happen without giving time to the corporate times in the Word. Commit and get involved. It’s not a matter of not having enough time...you’re reading this, aren’t you? If you’re reading this, you’re probably reading a lot of other stuff online. How many hours of online time are you spending a week compared to gathering with Spirit-filled believers to get into God’s Word together? We fool ourselves by complaining there’s not enough time.

He has given the Law and Prophets, the Gospel and Apostles. We need this more than anything else, and He has purposed that we receive and grow in His Word together.

Let’s get to it.

[1] This book was helpful when I was first learning this principle.