Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Practical.

ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ. The Acts of the Apostles.

Graduate work in seminary is now over twelve years behind me, but I still cringe when I think about those moments in a theology, Bible, or history course when someone, usually during a break, would comment, “I wish we just had to learn about practical ministry.” My visceral reaction (that I politely kept choked back) stuck with me far longer than it should. I remember a professor in a missiology class saying that the missionaries went out to do the work of reaching the lost, and that it was the “MDiv student’s job” to make it appear biblical. It’s only recently (in the last year or so) that I can open a popular book on ministry. There are good ones out there, I know, but the taint of those who only wanted the practical side of our training stuck to these “hands on” sort of books in my sinful mind.

Last week I opened a Greek New Testament to look something up. As I was flipping through the pages, I saw the title at the top of the pages to the book of Acts. ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ. Πραξεις, the first word in that title, is cognate with our English word “praxis.” Part of the same word-family as “practical.” The fifth book in the New Testament, in a sense, is a “practical” book on how to do ministry. I was both chastened for sticking my nose in the air concerning the idea of “practical ministry,” but also curious. According to the Holy Spirit, Who worked through those apostles in the first generation of the new covenant Church, what did “practical ministry” look like?

They prayed (1:14).
They added a leader for “ministry and apostleship” (1:15-26).
They met together (2:1).
They proclaimed “the wonderful works of God” to every ethnicity and language (2:4-40), preaching a sermon about God’s saving work in Christ from numerous Old Testament texts, ending with a command to “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”
They baptized “those who gladly received his word” (2:41).
I’ve always loved these next verses, which show the daily,“practical” work of the Holy Spirit in their midst: “...they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people” (2:42-47).
They went to where the people were, healed a man, and preached (3:1-26).
They witnessed to the authorities who had arrested them (4:5-22).
They prayed for boldness to preach even more (4:24-31).
They sold possessions to meet the needs of the poorer members of the Church (4:32-36).
They gathered where people were and healed them (5:12-16).
They were arrested, freed, and told (by “the Lord”) to go preach again (5:17-21).
They were arrested again, and get to preach another message (albeit shorter) to the authorities – not on civil rights, or injustice, but the Gospel (5:29-31).
They were released, “and daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42).
They were meeting the needs of the widows in the congregation (6:1).
They were appointing men “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” to the office of servant (6:2-6). These office-bearing servants were so “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” that two of them, Stephen (6:8-7:) and Philip (8:4-40), become unmatched preachers (Stephen becomes the first Christian martyr) and missionaries.
In addition to the office of servant (to meet the needs of the widows in the congregation and set the world afire with Gospel preaching as the Spirit directs), the original leadership continued to devote themselves “continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:4-7:60).
They grieved over their dead (8:2). In case that sounds too tame, they “made great lamentation over him.” Corporate grief is a psychologically and spiritually invaluable gift of God, lost in our culture (read the hymn-book of the Bible, the Psalter, sometime to see the emotions on display in their congregational singing).
They baptized former enemies (9:18).
They preached (9:20).
They made peace for the building of the fellowship and ministry (9:26-28). Beloved, we need more peacemakers like Barnabas! “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
They healed (9:32-34).
They restored the dead to life (9:35-43).
They prayed (10:9).
They traveled to places for the purpose of preaching and baptizing (10:34-48). Yes, there were probably still lots of households in Jerusalem that needed the Gospel. But God sent Peter on a short-term mission trip to this particular house.
They met to sort out disagreement and confusion about the mission work (11:1-18). They ended up glorifying God for reaching a people very different from themselves.
They preached (11:19-21).
They encouraged preachers (11:22-25).
They assembled the Church and taught them (11:26). For a year.
They collected an offering to meet the needs of the Church suffering from what we would call a “natural disaster” (i.e., an act of God, 11:27-30).
They were killed (12:2) and imprisoned (12:3) by the civil leadership.
They prayed (12:12).
The leadership of a local congregation “ministered to the Lord and fasted” (13:1-3).
They sent out missionaries after having “fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them” (13:3).
They traveled and preached (13:5).
They traveled and preached some more – about Jesus from Old Testament texts (13:13-41). Then they did it some more (13:44-49).
And some more (14:1-3).
And some more (14:6,7).
They healed (14:8-10).
They preached (14:14-17).
They preached the Gospel not just in marketplaces or the synagogues, but in local congregations, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.’ So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in Whom they had believed” (14:22,23).
They reported their mission work to the Church that had commissioned them (14:27,28). Paul and associates were accountable to a local congregation. What had the local congregations been doing while Acts reported on Paul’s mission trip? The practices outlined in 2:42-47.
They met to resolve doctrinal conflict (15:1-31).
They traveled and preached (15:32-35).
They traveled and encouraged the Church (15:36-40).
They kept on traveling and encouraging the Church (16:1-5).
They traveled and preached (16:10).
They preached and baptized (16:13-15).
They cast out a demon (16:16-19).
They “were praying and singing hymns to God” to a new audience – fellow prisoners in the Philippi jail (16:25).
They preached and baptized (16:31-34).
They encouraged fellow believers (16:40).
They traveled and preached Christ from the Old Testament (17:1-4).
They did it again (17:10-12).
They traveled and preached about God the Creator, judgment Day and the need to repent, salvation in Christ the Judge alone, all while quoting pagan poets (17:16-34).
They traveled and preached (18:1-5).
They baptized (18:8).
They taught “the Word of God” for eighteen months (18:11).
They traveled and preached (18:19).
They traveled and took time to encourage congregations (18:23).
They traveled and preached Christ from the Old Testament (18:24-28).
They baptized (19:5).
They preached for two years (19:8-10).
They healed and cast out demons (19:11,12).
They sent out men to preach whom they had personally discipled and mentored (19:22).
They traveled and encouraged believers “with many words” (20:1,2).
They gathered to break bread and hear preaching throughout the night on the first day of the week (20:7).
They taught and prayed for the leadership of local congregations (20:17-36).
They prayed (21:5).
They reported on mission work (21:17-25).
They were arrested and preached to hostile mobs (21:37-22:21).
They remained arrested and preached to hostile groups of leaders (22:30-23:1,6).
They defended themselves before a regional governor – and preached the Gospel (24:10-21).
They did it again (24:24,25). It’s noteworthy that, while preaching “the faith in Christ,” some of Paul’s topics included “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come.” Does your Gospel preaching and/or witnessing include these topics?
Still in custody, they continued to witness to Christ while on trial (26:1-23).
While shipwrecked, they healed (28:8,9).
They enjoyed fellowship for a week with believers (28:14,15).
They preached (28:17-29).
While under house arrest, they taught Christ for two years (27:30,31).

This is the Bible’s book on “practical ministry.” While modern books on “practical ministry” can be helpful, they can also pull us in dozens of different directions from the basics outlined in Acts. Let’s make sure we’re reading and following the model of the first “practical ministry” book before reading the advice of well-intentioned and successful leaders of today. Foundations matter.

I’ve purposed to read one of these modern “practical ministry” sort of books once a quarter these days (bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, you might say). If they’re good, I pass them on to church members or leaders in other congregations. What qualifies as “good”? They guide back to the original “practical ministry” book and increase faithfulness to the Holy Spirit’s model.


Let’s not outgrow Acts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Circumstantial Obedience?

The family-clan leaves Jerusalem to head home after the Passover, and twelve year-old Jesus stays behind. Mary and Joseph eventually find Him in the Temple, amazing the teachers with His understanding. “When they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.’ And He said to them, ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Luke 2:48-51).

God: His Father.
Jesus’ purpose: His Father’s business.
Where He deserves to be: the center the world to the people of the old covenant (Jerusalem), not some backwater nowhere (Nazareth).
Mary (mom) and Joseph (legal father...note how Jesus redirects Mary, reminder her of Who His Father is) didn’t understand Him.

Despite these facts, He completely submits to them in obedience to the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12//Deuteronomy 5:16; Ephesians 6:1-3).

Christian, obedience is not contingent on circumstances favorable to that obedience. Those who love Him keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; 7:9; 11:1; 30:16; Joshua 22:5; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4; John 14:15; 15:10; 1 John 5:3), even when it’s difficult, even when we aren’t where we want to be, even when nobody understands, even when we have a million reasons our friends all support about why we shouldn’t obey this or that particular command.

One of the most grace-filled words in the New Testament is the conjunction “but”:
  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16,17).
  • “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, Who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:1-10).
  • “For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.’ And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.’) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:18-24).

On our lips, sadly, it is a word that usually introduces disobedience. “I know what the Bible says, but...”

God the Holy Spirit will be present with us as we purpose to obey the commandments of God:
  • “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God Who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12,13).
  • “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied” (1 Peter 1:1,2).

God the Holy Spirit is present with us through the teaching, preaching, reading, singing, praying, and doing of His Word:
  • Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness(Romans 6:16-18).
  • Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever...this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:22,23,25b).

I’m utterly unsurprised when Bible study groups/Sunday School classes who are more concerned with gossipy cliques or social amusements produce a fruit of disobedience to the Word. I’m profoundly underwhelmed when believers who maybe gather with the saints for a few hours a month follow their heart instead of the Lord of their lips. I can hardly raise an eyebrow to those whose counsel in life-challenges and difficulties are all as practical and worldly-minded as they are, producing a community garden of flesh. It’s not shocking. If you’re not gathering in the Word, you’re going to have a life marked by disobedience to that Word.

We are not called to the popular or easy or comfortable. The path of obedience is not one to a guaranteed earthly/fleshly/temporal blessing or ease. Christ, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him Who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (Hebrews 5:7-9). Notice that the root of our obedience-producing faith is a Savior Who, as fully human, “learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” No conjunctions-unto-disobedience for Him. Or us.

Gather together in the Word, and may the Spirit produce in you a passion for holy obedience unto Christ-imitating and Father-glorifying righteousness.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gathering for Freedom

Our congregation’s worship leader sent me an e-mail last week describing several events going on this Lord’s Day. A community announcement in our little Southwest town invited people to “Happy Heathen Sunday,” a get-together by the “Atheist Meet-Up” group. Among other things, as this group gathers at a downtown coffee shop, they’ll “enjoy being terrible people who get to do what they like on Sunday morning.”

Sounds like freedom, doesn’t it? In opposition to the (maybe) 5% of the people in this city who will attend church this morning, these radical non-conformists will join the other 95% in following the dictates of their own desires. They’re only unique in that they’re being open and public about it. Are they really free, though?

Romans 6. Christian baptism denies their enjoyment is a reality. They may be doing “what they like,” but it’s the only thing they can do; not quite the libertine party they advertise it to be.

“...as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin” (Romans 6:3-7, N.K.J.V.).

“Slaves of sin,” needing to be “freed from sin.”

“...do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts” (6:12). Prior to baptism “into Christ Jesus,” sin reigned in the mortal body, and there was no option but to “obey it in its lusts.”

“...do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin” (6:13). Prior to baptism “into Christ Jesus,” there was no option but to “present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin.”

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness...just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness...what fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:16-19,21-23). Prior to baptism “into Christ Jesus,” nobody is free “to do what they like.” Well, let me clarify that. They are totally free “to do what they like,” as long as it’s “uncleanness,” “lawlessness,” and “sin.” We cannot pursue God’s “cleanness” apart from His Word (John 15:3) and baptism (Hebrews 10:22). Apart from Christ, we are not only breakers of God’s Law, but we hate God’s Law. Apart from Christ, we are “slaves to sin.” We can be nothing else.

On the Lord’s Day, grow in your knowledge of “that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.” Gather together with those who are “slaves of righteousness for holiness,” who are “slaves of God” bearing “fruit to holiness.” Gather with those “baptized into Christ Jesus.”

“Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone [see Exodus 13:3,14; 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6; 6:12; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5,10; Judges 6:8; Micah 6:4]. How can You say, “You will be made free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:31-36).

How does the Son make us “free”? By the abiding “in [Christ’s] word” as His “disciples indeed.” Gather together in the Word.

One of the first Christian books I read was Chuck Colson’s The Body (Word Publishing, 1992). It took a while for the message of the book to sink in, but as I’ve read it repeatedly over the last few decades, I’ve come to love it more and more. I wish I would’ve grabbed on to its theme sooner. There’s a passage in the book where a former Soviet citizen describes the efforts to erase God and her reaction to these efforts (pg. 76):

Today Irina was wondering, as she often had, why the teacher even bothered with the truckloads of words she was dumping from the front of the room. “God doesn’t exist,” the instructor said again. “Only silly old women believe in Him.”

Can’t they tell they are giving themselves away? thought Irina. Adults tell you there are no gremlins or ghosts. They tell you once or twice, that’s it. But with God, they tell you over and over again. So He must exist – and He must be very powerful for them to fear Him so greatly.

The Psalmist points this out, as well: “All his thoughts are, ‘there is no God’” (10:4, N.A.S.B.). This confession must be so constantly repeated because its assertion is counter to the way any part of the creation behaves. “...since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20, N.K.J.V.). “The things that are made” include the human brain, which is why Paul also says in the following verse that even idolaters and atheists “knew God.” They are “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them” (1:18,19). The work of the atheist is constant and never done, because it is a continual denial of the reality hard-wired into their very being. Must be exhausting. Especially when you must live up to the advertisement and “enjoy” your gathering under this banner.

I’m glad they made the announcement, and I absolutely support their freedom to gather and say whatever they want to say. I would never take it away from them or support anyone who desired to do so. In fact, they are being exceedingly helpful to the Gospel cause. They are conformists to the uttermost, since the vast majority of the population will be doing exactly what they are doing, be they confessing Christians or not. Most will spend this Sunday morning doing whatever they feel like doing, whatever they perceive will bring them the most enjoyment. The “happy” atheists are just being open and honest about it, reminding all who do obey the Scriptures’ command to gather for Christ’s glory on this third Sunday of Advent that our little town is a vital mission field. The self-described “heathen” are a God-given catalyst to prompt us to prayer and even greater efforts at evangelistic outreach to our neighbors, friends, and maybe even church members who get around to the Gathering if there’s nothing better to do on their plate.

And part of me, that part I’m not too sure about (he’s a weird mix of orneriness and zeal for the house of God), thinks, “I’ll wonder how long it would take to overwhelming outnumber the public atheistic gatherings in coffeehouses with Bible studies planted and supported by local churches?”

Not long, I suspect. Maybe it’s time to find out.


Gather, Church, this third Sunday of Advent, and rejoice in the coming of God to earth...then become a signpost pointing to this utterly unique and saving act by going out to be light in the darkness of your city.
Ormoc City, Leyte, Philippines (May 2014)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Then Shall Thy Light Break Forth

Thomas Thacher (1620-1678), pastor of the Old South Church in Boston, preached from Isaiah 58 at a solemn assembly in 1674. The title of the sermon was “A Fast of God’s Choosing, Plainly Opened For the Help of Those Poor in Spirit whose Hearts are Set to Seek the Lord their God in New-England, in the Solemn Ordinance of a Fast.”

(In an age of 140-characters, text-ese, and sound-bytes, I wonder if our economization of communication is actually better.)

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen?
to loose the bands of wickedness,
to undo the heavy burdens,
and to let the oppressed go free,
and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry,
and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?
when thou seest the naked,
that thou cover him;
and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning,
and thine health shall spring forth speedily:
and thy righteousness shall go before thee;
the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.
Then shalt thou call,
and the LORD shall answer;
thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am” (Isaiah 58:6-9, K.J.V.).

It’s a good read (it was published four years after Thacher preached it). The older I get, the more jealous I am for the style of those old preachers: they are so pastoral. Sometimes we speak of ministers as “soul-physicians,” but sometimes these guys are more like “soul-surgeons.” I listen to a few people who do this today (Sinclair Ferguson is especially good at this), but in general it’s hard to find them.

In speaking from verse 8 (“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning”), Thacher mentions several things that this spiritual light, this sign of God’s satisfaction, does in the life of believers coming out of a time of spiritual darkness (hence the need for the solemn assembly, repentance, and fasting). One of the things he mentions is that light illuminates just how dark the darkness was: “...it is light after darkness when you now see that darkness had covered your souls whereas you previously did not know what your state and condition were.”

I know this darkness from personal (and pastoral) experience. It’s the tendency to see spiritual darkness as a circumstance brought about in your life through the actions of others. This gloom through which we trudge does not originate with us, but has wrapped itself around us through the selfish, ignorant, unjust, or wicked actions/words of others (so we think - we actually can't see anything correctly). I wouldn’t be in this inky pit if it weren’t for them, we tell ourselves (and probably plenty of others). We blind ourselves to our own spiritual darkness by insisting that it is something outside that has offensively been pushed on us.

We cannot see our own darkness.

In a few days I have to speak to a small-group Bible study about why I think a popular Bible teacher is not the best person from whom to learn. The main spiritual unhealthiness I think this teacher promotes is how we hear from the Lord (specifically, in extra-biblical personal revelation). I don’t want to just offer criticism at this meeting, so I was studying what the Bible had to say about hearing God. It’s a common theme in the Gospel of John. While I was doing this research, though, I re-read the story of the blind man in chapter 9. He is given sight by Jesus, but later interrogated by the Pharisees and cast out of the synagogue as a result of his testimony concerning Christ.

“Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:35-41).

The greatest darkness belongs to those who deny the darkness exists because of their own sin. Christ “gives them over” to this blindness (in the Romans 1:24,26,28 sense). This is how “they which see might be made blind.” Their decided condition is declared over them by the Lord.

“The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22,23).

“The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light” (Luke 11:34-36).

In both of these statements Jesus identifies the darkness not as something exterior to us, but something akin to what we now call “worldview.” Our philosophy of life, our way of seeing and evaluating everything in our experience of reality, is either one illuminated by the pure light of the wisdom of the Word, or is darkened by “vain...imaginations,” “their foolish heart,” “the vanity of their mind,” or “the blindness of their heart” (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17,18).

Yes, this is the continual state of unbelievers, but spiritual darkness can sometimes afflict believers.

“...through unbelief and the temptations of Satan, the sensible sight of the light and love of God may for a time be clouded and obscured from them, yet he is still the same, and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation” (1689 Baptist Confession, 17.1).

“Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, V).

This brings me back to Thacher’s sermon and Isaiah 58:8.

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...” This is a promise of God.

What brings the light that shows just how dark our darkness was?

“...to loose the bands of wickedness,
to undo the heavy burdens,
and to let the oppressed go free,
and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry,
and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?
when thou seest the naked,
that thou cover him;
and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (58:6,7).

Sadly, when we go through times of spiritual darkness, we tend most to focus inward on ourselves (again, I say this out of personal and pastoral experience). With blind eyes continually gazing at the darkness, we, as Thacher said, do "not know what [our] state and condition" is. The remedy according to the Lord’s words through the prophet is just the opposite. We are commanded to do just the opposite of what our natural (sinful) instincts are when we are going through a season of darkness. Instead of falling deeper into the singularity (black hole), we are to turn outward to care for others. “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...”

Maybe you’re thinking, “but isn’t it hypocrisy to do these things if I don’t feel like doing them?”

The Lord Himself answers this a few chapters earlier (where He’s speaking about right observance of His sabbath): “Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed” (56:1).

It would be hypocritical to take care of others if we were attempting to procure salvation or righteousness for ourselves. That’s not the case in chapter 58. He’s calling His people (a people struggling in spiritual darkness) to a humble repentance, a fast, that consists in obeying His command to care for those in need. The goal isn’t salvation through righteousness. God Himself provided that a few chapters earlier. The purpose is obeying God (the fruit of those truly justified by faith). It’s not hypocrisy to do what God has commanded when you don’t feel like it. It’s spiritual discipline.

And He promises that the darkness will lift when we do it. One of the first things we realize with the coming light of dawn is just how dark the previous darkness had been. Our turning in on ourselves meant we weren’t caring for others – a rebellion against the command of the Lord. As a result He sends the darkness, usually through conflicts with others or difficult circumstances (which sometimes triggers depression). We deny the darkness belongs to us and blame others in our vain imaginations. And the darkness deepens.

Want to see reality? Consider your salvation (justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone) and obey God’s command to care for others – whether you feel like it or not. The light will dawn and you’ll see reality. Your darkness was yours.

Something else Thacher says: “...when this light that is promised is gradual, like the light of the morning that ‘shineth more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4:18). You must not say there is no light because it is not noon at dawn. If spiritually it is but the dawning of the day or the light of the morning star, you still have cause to acknowledge it is an answer to prayers. If it foreshadows the beginning of your return from spiritual captivity or outward calamity you are to acknowledge it as a springing light which shall go on to the perfect day in full perfection of glory.”

Believer bowed down in gloom, the light does not come from contemplating the murk (darkness cannot be seen for what it is while we are still blind to it). It comes with a faith in Christ that produces self-disciplined obedience to His commands to care for others selflessly.


 “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Psalm and the Sacramental Scattering

Do not slay them, lest my people forget;
Scatter them by Your power,
And bring them down,
O Lord our shield.
For the sin of their mouth and the words of their lips,
Let them even be taken in their pride,
And for the cursing and lying which they speak.
Consume them in wrath, consume them,
That they may not be;
And let them know that God rules in Jacob
To the ends of the earth. Selah”
(Psalm 59:11-13, N.K.J.V.).

When we consider the frequency of the verb “forget” in the Old Testament, we learn a bit about it. After the Psalter itself, the verb שכח occurs most in Deuteronomy (covenant renewed after the passing of a faithless generation) and Jeremiah (old covenant broken, new covenant promised). Forgetting is a threat to members of the covenant – the Church. The Psalm prays that unbelievers be scattered and not immediately judged to counter covenant unfaithfulness (forgetting).

The presence of hostile unbelievers as they besiege the camp of believers is sacramental. I’m not saying it is a sacrament (there are only two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper), but that it is sacramental (acts similarly to a sacrament). What do I mean by this?

The Westminster Divines describe a sacrament as that which makes clear “a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church, and the rest of the world” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 27.1) and something to “distinguish them from those who are without” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 162). Further, sacraments confer a “grace” which is “the work of the Spirit,” which contains a “word of institution” or “promise of benefit to worthy receivers” (W.C.F. 27.3). Christ gives a sacrament “to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace the benefits of His mediation, to strengthen and increase their faith” (W.L.C., Q. 162).

Christ is the lone Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). He is also the eternal Heir to David’s throne (Luke 1:31,32,68-75; Revelation 22:16). The Psalms not only speak of Him (Luke 24:44), but as the inspired songs of the Spirit of Christ, they are the Son’s very prayers.

The Son, then, in Psalm 59, prays that the besiegers do not immediately find destruction, but are scattered. It is the Mediator-King’s prayer on behalf of God’s people. This scattering marks a difference between the Church and the world, since the work of Christ is not to scatter His people, but gather them (Matthew 24:31//Mark 13:27; John 11:52; 2 Thessalonians 2:1). The scattering of the besiegers also strengthens the faith of those in the new covenant, preventing their forgetfulness (Psalm 59:11).

The continual existence of the enemies of the Church (until the last Day) keeps the Church from lapsing into apathetic forgetfulness. For now, the serpent is kept from deceiving “the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war” (Revelation 20:8). In this Age, the Church is gathered and the nations remain scattered by the Psalm 59:11 prayer of the Mediator-King. He does not outright destroy them – otherwise we would be tempted to forget the covenant. The scattering of the enemies is our preservation.

The scattering of the enemies of the Church also serves the Gospel mission of this Age, for the Church is created in every generation out of these scattered enemies. “...when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10). The Age will one day end. The continued existence of those who hate the Church is one way Christ preserves our faith (so that we do not forget our need for Him) and the means by which the Church is propagated (the Church grows through enemies converted). However, Christ (in Psalm 59:13) also prays for the coming Day of judgment.

Until that Day, we should regard the hatred of the world toward the Church as a gracious reminder of Christ’s sovereign defense and preservation of the Church (the Church outlasts every nation in history, no matter how mighty or determined to destroy the Church that nation is). We do not forget (hear the echoes of the “remembrance” from the Lord’s Supper, Luke 22:19//1 Corinthians 11:24,25) and therefore are held in the new covenant. The continued existence of those who hate us is Christ’s preserving grace to us.

“What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:22-24).

Rather than hand-wringing, give Him thanks and purpose to grow in faithfulness to Him and His mission (to see some from out of His enemies saved). Instead of scattering (a sign of judgment from the Mediator-King), let us gather in Him.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25).