Monday, February 1, 2016

The Gathering and Garages

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile” (Billy Sunday, 1862-1935).

I’ve heard a dozen variations on this quote. So have you. It’s popular for preachers, youth ministers, evangelists, and unbelieving scoffers to diminish the importance of attending regular gatherings of the Church. I understand why the last group I mentioned does it (I was part of that group); it baffles me why the first three groups do it. I’ve hoped that they don’t intend to do that. The person on the stage says this, gets some souls to walk the aisle (a sign, I suppose, of a “successful” gathering). I’ve never heard them take the time to then explain that those who are truly Christian gather with the Church; it is, in fact, one of the biblical assurances that you are a Christian. Christians gather. It’s what they do. It’s what it means to “be the Church.” If a person doesn't gather with the Church, it's a biblical reason to question the genuine nature of their confession to be Christian (Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 2:19). It would seem Billy Sunday's got it backwards. But the speaker who diminishes the gathering gets his aisle-walker from out of the gathering. Work done. The Great Commission isn’t happening, though (the teaching of disciples to obey all that Christ commanded).

“…if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Corinthians 14:24,25). Yes, there hopefully are unbelievers in the gathering of the Church. Prophecy, or Spirit-empowered, Christ-centered proclamation of the Bible, must occur in the gathering of the Church. The garage is built to house an automobile. The Church gathers for Christians – and those who might become Christians through the proclamation of the Word of God.

Please stop comparing gathering as the Church with a garage, or Pizza Hut, or anything else. The gathering is of exceeding importance and should not be diminished. If you want regular gatherers to examine the genuine nature of their salvation, don’t question something that is a biblical sign that you are actually a Christian (gathering with the Church). Just use the language of Paul to the Achaian Baptist Association: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you - unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5,6). In fact, a weekly observation of the Lord's Supper gives a biblical and liturgical opportunity for such regular examination of the legitimacy of one's salvation (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). Or just be diligent in preaching the Gospel every time you're on stage. It's "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16), not this diminishing of the Church as a manipulative rhetorical tool.

What does it profit a preacher to get “decisions” if they communicate a deprioritizing of the God-given instrument of discipleship – the gathering of the Church?

Gather. Proclaim the Gospel. Keep on proclaiming that Gospel in the gathering. And when you've done it, do it again. The lost will be saved. The saved will grow in Christ. This is the power of God.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Daily Reading, Biblical Theology, and Spirit-Given Exhortation

January 29. I read Psalm 29,59,89,149.[1] The apostle Paul quotes from Psalm 89 in his preaching of the Gospel. God’s covenant with David is actually a covenant with David’s Seed “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3; 9:5). When we follow the apostles (who were uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit) in “trying to persuade…concerning Jesus, from both the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23) we are walking a well-trod and ancient path. When we do this with fellow believers, we gift them with a whole Bible. Not just the four Gospels or the New Testament, but a whole Christian Bible. I rejoiced early yesterday morning to hear a fellow Bible teacher in this little town tell me the biblical maturity he’d seen in students who were beginning to grasp a whole-Bible Christian theology. Praise the Lord, and may the next generation of the Church know, preach, and obey the whole Book far more than us!

The covenants are the theological, God-ordained “glue” that holds the Old and New Testament together as the testimony of Jesus Christ. “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, Who is Himself the focus of divine revelation” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, I).

I have found David My servant;
With My holy oil I have anointed him
With Whom My hand will be established;
My arm also will strengthen him.
The enemy will not deceive him,
Nor the son of wickedness afflict him.
But I shall crush his adversaries before him,
And strike those who hate him.
My faithfulness and My lovingkindness will be with him,
And in My name his horn will be exalted.
I shall also set his hand on the sea
And his right hand on the rivers.
He will cry to Me, ‘You are my Father,
My God, and the rock of my salvation.’
I also shall make him My firstborn,
The highest of the kings of the earth.
My lovingkindness I will keep for him forever,
And My covenant shall be confirmed to him.
So I will establish his descendants [lit., “Seed”] forever
And his throne as the days of heaven”
(Psalm 89:20-29).

Paul quotes this passage in his “word of exhortation” to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch.[2]

“Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen: The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He led them out from it. For a period of about forty years He put up with them in the wilderness. When He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land as an inheritance - all of which took about four hundred and fifty years. After these things He gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. After He had removed him, He raised up David to be their king, concerning whom He also testified and said, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My heart, who will do all My will.’ From the descendants of this man, according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus…brethren, sons of Abraham’s family, and those among you who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning Him. And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people. And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus…David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid among his fathers and underwent decay; but He Whom God raised did not undergo decay. Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:16-38).

Sunrise almost 3 weeks ago. The mountain (Cookes Peak) goes from shadow
to detailed definition in the full daylight (especially just before sunset). This is how
progressive revelation functions from the Old to New Testament.
God “found” David, and through the ever-living and ever-reigning Seed of David “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.” Repent and believe in this Davidic King unto forgiveness and blissful eternal life before His Father.

[1] I try to read the Psalms daily in an x, x+30 pattern. Psalm 119 should have been in today’s line-up, but I save it for the 31st of the month and read it alone.
[2] Notice that this “exhortation” is not what we would call “practical” these days. It is pure biblical/covenantal theology. “Exhortation” is a work of the Holy Spirit, and it leads to the “increase” of the church (Acts 9:31). It causes joy (Acts 15:31). Remember Romans 15:4,5. This is the reason God gave the New Testament Church the gift of the Old Testament. This should be the substance of the Spirit-given prophecy in the Church (1 Corinthians 14:3).

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Thankfulness and Praise from Hebrews 1:10

“And [as is written in Psalm 102:25], ‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the works of Your hands…’” (Hebrews 1:10).

I am thankful that all of creation is a testimony to not just a “Creator,” but specifically Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 1:10 is still the testimony of the Father concerning His Son, Who is one God with Him and at the same time personally distinct from Him. Now the Father uses the words of Psalm 102 as His testimony. In that Psalm, the Lord’s unchanging and eternal nature is contrasted with humanity’s temporary experience in this world.

“In the beginning God [the Father] created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said [the Word Who is God the Son]…” (Genesis 1:1-3).

“By the word [the Son] of the Lord [the Father] the heavens were made,
And by the breath
[the Spirit] of His mouth all their host” (Psalm 33:6).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:1-3).

“…there is but one God, the Father, from Whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by Whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1 Corinthians 8:6).

The Father’s “beloved Son…is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:13-17).[1]

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, Whom He appointed heir of all things, through Whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
From everlasting I was established,
From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills I was brought forth;
While He had not yet made the earth and the fields,
Nor the first dust of the world.
When He established the heavens, I was there,
When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep,
When He made firm the skies above,
When the springs of the deep became fixed,
When He set for the sea its boundary
So that the water would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth;
Then I was beside Him, as a master workman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
Rejoicing in the world, His earth,
And having my delight in the sons of men”
(Proverbs 8:22-31).[2]

Jesus, the eternally divine God the Son, is the Mediator by which the Father created the universe. He is also the means by which the universe is maintained. This is not the main point of the Hebrews 1:10//Psalm 102:25 passage, however.

The main point of the text is to contrast Creator with creation, with His eternality and creation’s temporary nature.

The Psalmist feels this momentary existence in the world: “…my days have been consumed in smoke, and my bones have been scorched like a hearth. My heart has been smitten like grass and has withered away…He has weakened my strength in the way; He has shortened my days” (102:3,4,20). But he appeals to the God Who is not subject to this brief life. He is not part of creation, but is Creator. He is not aging through time, but is beyond time, Creator of time, and maintainer of the flow of time in its relationship with spatial reality. This is the Son, Who added humanity to His eternal Deity. The timeless One entered time. The Creator came into creation. We, in this short moment of weakness that we call life, appeal to this divine Son Who is Creator for all our help and salvation alone.

Looking toward southeast Arizona's mountain ranges
over the dust storms of the Lordsburg Playa.
And all that is around us exists to remind us of this truth, this reality, this relationship.

Praise Him with great praise.

[1] Christ as “firstborn of creation” doesn’t make Him part of creation. It makes Him both Source and Ruler of creation.
[2] I include this passage even though it is a poetic statement given by the personified Wisdom in Proverbs. It seems like it must in some way reflect the place of Christ in creation. The phrase “from everlasting I was established” does not endorse Arianism (modern Jehovah’s Witnesses), which states that there was a time when Jesus did not exist and a time when He was created. I affirm the eternal generation of the Son. He has always existed, and always existed as the only-begotten Son of the Father. There was never a time when He was not begotten, but has always been begotten of the Father. “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, Who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him” (1689 Baptist Confession, 2.3).

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Thankfulness and Praise in Hebrews 1:9

“…of the Son He says, ‘…You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness above Your companions’” (Hebrews 1:8,9).

I am thankful for the Son’s passion for absolute truth and its application in judgment and righteousness – and that as a result of this the Father has enthroned His Son with a Spirit-filled gladness.

As the Father continues speaking of His Son in the letter to the Hebrews, the Holy Spirit gives us the words of Psalm 45:7.

While in Hebrews 1:8//Psalm 45:6 the Father calls the Son “God,” in Hebrews 1:9//Psalm 45:7 the Father self-identifies as the God of the Son. Father and Son are both God. They are not two gods, for the Bible is abundantly clear that there is only one God. The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. They are distinct Persons Who are both the one God.

A lot of people, including people who do not believe in Him or the Scripture which bears witness to Him, try to make statements about what Jesus is. They tell us that Jesus only helped people, affirmed people, never issued statements about sin or judgment, and was the very model of tolerance for today’s anything-goes society. However, the Bible – the only source for authoritative truth about Jesus – does not tell us of a Jesus Who looks exactly like the government-enforced tolerance of today. It tells us of a Jesus Who was zealous for the Law of His Father.

In the first sermon we have recorded from Jesus in “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father Who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; [as it says in Psalm 6:8] depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23). The Son, Who hates lawlessness (Hebrews 1:9), does not have a relationship with the lawless, and will not permit them in His royal presence in “the kingdom of heaven.” They won’t be there if they spurn the Law of God. Those who truly call Jesus “Lord” have a different relationship with the Law of God than the lost world: “…just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (Romans 6:19).[1] Further, they have a different relationship with the world of the lawless: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘“I will dwell in them [Leviticus 26:12] and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate [Isaiah 52:11],” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” says the Lord Almighty’” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).

A day will come when the King Who hates lawlessness will separate pretenders out of His Kingdom: “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then [as it says in Daniel 12:3] the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:40-43).

Is this discussion only about Law – are we moving our Christianity into that hated camp of “Legalism” with all this talk of lawlessness and Jesus’ hatred of it? No.

In our congregation, we observe the Lord’s Supper every week. When we hold up the cup together, we hear Jesus’ words with that cup: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). We make a claim to the new covenant (and its promises) at the Table, a claim sealed by the blood of Jesus alone. One of those promises graciously frees us from our lawlessness: “And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying [in Jeremiah 31:33], ‘“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days,” says the Lord: “I will put My laws upon their heart, and on their mind I will write them,”’ He then says [in Jeremiah 31:34], ‘“And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more”’ (Hebrews 10:15-17).[2] We do not preach legalism as the remedy from lawlessness. We lift up the cup, make a claim to the new covenant by faith, and rejoice in God’s promise to write His Law on our hearts by His Spirit and embrace the forgiveness from lawlessness which is ours by faith in Jesus Christ. Rejoice. “…to the one who does not work [deeds of the Law to earn salvation], but believes in Him Who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks [in Psalm 32:1,2] of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account’” (Romans 4:5-8). This “blessing” is a covenant blessing. It is ours not because we obey the Law. It is ours because of the saving work of Jesus Christ. The other covenant blessing is that the Law is written on our hearts. Law-keeping is not an obligation that keeps us in covenant – only the Holy Spirit seals us in the covenant which is inaugurated by the blood of Jesus. Law-keeping is not a condition. It is a benefit, a blessing. In this new covenant, our lawlessness is forgotten and the Law is written on our hearts. That which the King hates is removed from those united to the King in a covenant that has all its conditions met by the King Himself. Praise Him with great praise!

This King Who hates lawlessness has, as a result of His faithfulness to the Father’s Law, has been anointed with the Spirit of gladness. This is part of the text from another of Jesus’ early sermons: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel…” (Luke 4:18//Isaiah 61:1; see also Acts 10:38). This Spirit produces a Gospel-purpose, a Christ-centeredness – and a God-given gladness.

We see this God-given gladness at least twice in the New Testament:
  • “At that very time [the Son] rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, ‘I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth’” (Luke 10:21).
  • Peter quotes Psalm 16 in Acts 2:25-31. He tells us that David “was a prophet” and was speaking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He gives us this testimony of the Son concerning the resurrection: “…my heart was glad and my tongue exulted” (Acts 2:26//Psalm 16:9).

The Son-King’s hatred of lawlessness results in the Father’s eternal giving of His Spirit of gladness to the Son – and through the Son to those united with the Son by faith. With Jesus, let us love God’s Law by the Spirit He has given those who believe in Him. There is gladness here. Praise Him with great praise!
Looking toward Signal Peak from Tadpole Ridge,
Gila National Forest, New Mexico, U.S.A.

[1] “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, Who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:11-14).
[2] Notice that the Holy Spirit is speaking (present tense), though the writer of Hebrews is quoting Scripture over six centuries old. The Holy Spirit’s speaking through the text He authored is always now.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Shepherding in the Bible Study

“The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care” (1689 Baptist Confession, 3.7).

We started meditating together on Paul’s letter to Titus during last night’s Wednesday night Bible study at our church. The first words, “Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God” (1:1), led us fairly quickly into a discussion which dominated most of the 50 minutes we spent in active discussion.

“The chosen of God.”

This was a group of believers of varying degrees of maturity, age, and relatively small variation on the topic of predestination. As we considered the biblical data from various N.T. sources, I tried to be careful to keep the “cage fighter” in me subdued. This wasn’t a YouTube debate (I’ve actually never watched one and have no interest in doing so). This was a Bible study made up of people I love and respect. People I long to see firmly “established in the faith” (Romans 1:11; 16:25; 2 Corinthians 1:21; Colossians 1:23; 2:7; 1 Thessalonians 3:2,13).

This wasn’t a Sunday morning or evening service, where I speak from a text and don’t take questions during the service. This is Bible study, and there are often questions and discussion points suggested by members of the group. It always reminds me of Paul’s description of the gathering of the Church: “What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:26-33). I used to not like meetings like this. I’ve come to delight in them and see them as a powerful place for the Spirit to work through His Word in and among His people.

As you have a discussion on a topic like election/predestination, it’s easy to ignore souls for the sake of establishing just how right you are. But this is the business of souls. And there is careful shepherding to be done in the gathering of souls, even in Bible study.

“The work of pastors being constantly to attend the service of Christ, in his churches, in the ministry of the word and prayer, with watching for their souls, as they that must give an account to Him” (1689 Baptist Confession, 26.10). I assume “watching for their souls” is a reference to Hebrews 13:17, where congregants are commanded, “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” I don’t understand the “work of pastors” described as “the ministry of the word and prayer” and “watching for their souls” to be separate items. The Holy Spirit regularly brings congregants to mind, prompting me, I believe, to pray for them (sometimes at 4 a.m. on Monday mornings). But “watching for their souls” can happen during “the ministry of the word,” even during a Wednesday night Bible study.
“Watching during their souls” during “the ministry of the word” requires that challenging and historically divisive doctrines not be avoided (they’re attested to throughout the Bible, after all), but “handled with special prudence and care.”

We speak the truth, but we do so in love: “…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him Who is the head, even Christ, from Whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:15,16). Notice the inter-connectedness: “…speaking the truth in love” leads to growth in Christ, which leads to a properly-functioning church (“the whole body”), which leads back to more “growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” It’s a circular growth to loving speech to growth to loving speech, etc., all in Christ and from Christ. How? Read 4:11-13. Christ-given “apostles, and…prophets, and…evangelists, and…pastors and teachers.”

Shepherding souls in the Bible study. It’s my fleshly pride that wants to conquer all intellects and show them the unparalleled superiority of my Reformed Baptist doctrine. It’s my calling from above, though, to lead them to the Scriptures, encourage their Spirit-given insights into the text, gently correct errors, prayerfully seek words of explanation of difficult ideas witnessed to in the Bible, and to guide the group meditation through a time of Christ-empowered growth and love. The latter is far more to be preferred. I want them to go away longing for more of the Word and having caught a glimpse of its power and beauty.

Shepherding souls in the Bible study. It drives me personally deeper into the Scripture and convicts me anew of the indispensability of prayer in this act of leading the Bible study.

Lord, help me handle the text and all the glorious doctrine that pours out of it “with special prudence and care,” mindful of the beautiful souls you have created and redeemed.