Monday, September 29, 2014

Greater Than Gold

We were in the book of Numbers last night. Israel’s enemies hire Balaam to curse the covenant people. The pagan diviner shows a surprising dedication to the Word of God (greater than many who today claim to be among the faithful):
  • “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God” (22:18).
  • “Behold, I have come now to you! Am I able to speak anything at all? The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak” (22:38).
  • “Must I not be careful to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” (23:12).
  • “Did I not tell you, ‘Whatever the LORD speaks, that I must do’?” (23:26).
  • “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything contrary to the command of the LORD, either good or bad, of my own accord. What the LORD speaks, that I will speak” (24:13).

He had been given something greater than gold (23:5).

“The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them Your servant is warned;
In keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7-11).

God give us the grace you gave the magus from the east (Numbers 23:7), not just for a moment, but now into eternity. Give us an unending knowledge of “the sacred writings which are able to give [us] the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Greater than gold, sweeter than honey...

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Problem's Not Far Away

One of my favorite times on vacation with my family is attending worship. I don’t say that to sound super-holy. I enjoy - and need - the change in perspective (not just professionally, but personally). Sitting with my family and listening to a sermon. Singing with my wife by my side. This is an exceedingly rare experience for me. Because this doesn’t happen much, I take a lot of time finding the congregation with which we will worship. Wherever we’re vacationing, I find the nearby S.B.C. congregations (my confessional fellowship, or denomination). I look at their websites. What are their stated values? What do they think is most important about their existence in their community? How do they define “worship”? What’s been preached from the pulpit this year? I don’t have the luxury of an extended taste-and-see church-search as I would if I had actually moved into the neighborhood. One shot. Sometimes it means a local congregation. Another time it meant driving 41 miles over a major mountain pass (two years ago – worth the drive). This year it meant an easier drive of 55 miles. There were two large S.B.C. churches in the town we were staying, but I was searching for something different than “large” and attractive. I’m sure they’ve gotten to be the size they are for very good reasons, but we get one opportunity as a family to worship like this.

I found a congregation in downtown Durango, Gospel Church Durango. S.B.C. Relatively small. No building of their own. “Worship” was defined as far more than music. A Christ-centered view of the Word and the Table were the focus. It was worth the drive. We spent as much time in prayer as we did singing. Scripture reading wasn’t limited to the sermon. The sermon was nice and meaty, and anchored solidly to the Word (with a focus on Christ, even though the text was O.T.) – in other words, I was able to rest in the moment of the sermon knowing my family was hearing the Word faithfully preached (no post-message correction talk). The Table played a prominent role in the service. It was a veritable Christ-feast. Loved it.

The pastor was preaching from Genesis (as I have been doing all year at I.H.B.C.). I enjoyed hearing the text being read and preached by someone else.

As he was preaching through the blame-shifting part of the Fall, another connection started resonating in my mind. In our Berkhof reading group, we spent several weeks discussing the decree of God. Here’s a brief confessional definition: “God has decreed in Himself from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things which shall ever come to pass. Yet in such a way that God is neither the author of sin nor does He have fellowship with any in the committing of sins, nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (1689 Baptist Confession, 3.1).

How can God be good Creator and sovereign Sustainer when there’s evil? On one level, we can trace human evil back to Adam (“...through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned,” Romans 5:12). But that doesn’t help much, since the serpent sneaks into the garden already a transgressor and the root of evil. Where does the serpent come from? He is created by God. “Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made” (Genesis 2:19; 3:1). But God’s not evil nor the root of evil. How do we solve this conundrum with the limited biblical data given us?

As we just read yesterday in our Berkhof reading group, the Bible has very little to say about the creation of the angelic beings, including the Adversary.

For millennia, every theologian (and everyone’s a theologian) has tried to solve the problem of evil. I’m not sure it can be solved, and suspect there’s a pride problem involved when someone thinks they have completely solved what no one has been able to solve since the dawn of time.

That being said, we should still think on these things, but need to have several cautions in mind.

In thinking on the problem of evil and its origins, let’s beware of blame-shifting too far away from us: “And He said, ‘...have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the LORD God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’ And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’” (Genesis 3:11-13).

In the first trial in human history, the man and woman try not to solve the problem of evil, but to get it far away from them personally.

Never forget that the problem of evil isn’t greatest in the mysterious origin of the rebellious serpent, the horrifying stuff in the news, or the heartbreaking decisions of the people we know. The problem of evil is greatest in us. We are evil, even the best among us. Whitewash this, try to justify yourself, play the moral comparison game to try to come out on top, or attempt to wiggle your way out, and you’ll get just about everything else wrong.

“For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:14-25).

No matter how baffled I am trying to unravel theological mysteries from the Word, one thing is clear: I am evil and dead in evil apart from salvation by God’s free grace through faith in Christ alone.

No matter how overwhelming the wicked storm of the whole world seems on the news, there is a greater storm that threatens me (and my family) most: I am evil and dead in evil apart from salvation by God’s free grace through faith in Christ alone.

No matter how hurt and disappointed I am by the actions of people I love and respect as they act out their sin in contradiction to the clear teaching of the Word, there is the potential in me to far out-do them in their foolishness: I am evil and dead in evil apart from salvation by God’s free grace through faith in Christ alone.

The problem of evil is not in ancient history, theological abstraction, on the internet news, or in other people. The real problem of evil is in me, but God in Christ has solved it finally and completely.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

This Is the Day

Somehow autumn (15 days away, but I’m already there) is turning out much busier than summer was. When things are like this I’m always nervous that something critical is going to fall through the cracks, so I try to have the foundations laid for every sermon or Bible study I have coming up for several weeks. Heeheehee. “Fall through the cracks.” Get it? “Fall”? “Autumn”? Ah, well.

Anyway, with regular sermons and Bible studies along with special events (our 2nd Annual Bible Conference and a once-a-month Bible study in which the participants want a lesson on the millennium), sometimes I get so organized about the upcoming weeks that I lose sight of today. I woke up this morning and went through my first basic routines. “What day is today?” Sunday. “What am I preaching on this morning?” Ummm...when it takes longer than five seconds to answer that question, I know I need to start out by getting in this day – not just mentally, but spiritually and emotionally. Get out of bed, head to the coffeepot. Find the Psalms. Force myself to read through them slowly, even mouthing the words quietly (no one else is awake here in the dark pre-dawn). I’m following the routine my pastor taught me decades ago. Read the Psalm that matches today’s date (my first thought of the day, remember, was to figure out what day it is). Then add thirty to that number and read that Psalm. Add thirty to that number and read the next Psalm. Gets me through the Psalms in a month. Gets me praying in the Spirit (He inspired the Psalms, they are prayerful songs, they cover the range of human emotions/experiences without sinful selfish thoughts). Gets me in this day, which the LORD has made (Psalm 118:24) and is the Day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2). This is where I need to be, regardless of what the schedule holds for the next month.

It is the Lord’s Day. We will gather in His blessed Name and sing songs old and new. We will greet one another in love. We will read Scripture aloud and pray. We will give an offering for the furthering of His work in this world. We will gather at the Table and proclaim the Lord’s death until He returns. We will worship Him in His Word in the moment of the sermon. The people who will be there will be the exact people He intends for this particular Gathering, and in that sense it will be a uniquely designed moment unlike any other in all of human history. He will be Lord of the Gathering, we will be His gathered people in Christ, and that moment deserves to be respected, treasured, and savored for what it is. I want to be there fully.

One of today’s Psalms:
“God be gracious to us and bless us,
And cause His face to shine upon us - Selah.
That Your way may be known on the earth,
Your salvation among all nations.
Let the peoples praise You, O God;
Let all the peoples praise You.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy;
For You will judge the peoples with uprightness
And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.
Let the peoples praise You, O God;
Let all the peoples praise You.
The earth has yielded its produce;
God, our God, blesses us.
God blesses us,
That all the ends of the earth may fear Him” (Psalm 67:1-7).

Gather, Church, not for what you can get out of the Gathering, but so that His Way and salvation may be made known to the world (67:2), that He may be the song of more and more souls (67:3-6), and that His righteous judgment will become the primary guide and motivator for humanity – starting with us (67:4,7). It’s not about His face shining on me and my personal, private, existential feelings/experience in the “worship service,” but about the grace and light of His Presence for us (67:1), His congregation of the eternal Church which is His Body, “the fullness of Him Who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). Outside of this He has given, how could I ask for more? This is where I want to be.

In response to His blessings, I want to be the first to fear Him (67:6,7), that I may slowly and awkwardly continue on the Way of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10), that I may humble myself more in my relationship with other believers (Ephesians 5:21), that we may know the comfort of the Holy Spirit even more (Acts 9:31), that I may seek to proclaim the reconciling message of Christ to the lost more (2 Corinthians 5:11)...I can do none of these things if I do not fear Him, and the Psalm says that His blessings should motivate me to fear Him more. And I am certainly blessed.

The Psalm, with its repetition of “Selah” (67:1,4), a word probably invoking meditation of what’s just been said, purposely short-circuits the nervous busy-ness that threatens to master me in these early moments of the day.

If we are not present in the Gathering, how can we expect to impact the world for the Kingdom? This Psalm inseparably connects the two ideas. No “go” unless it pours forth from the Gathering. I cannot forget that or cheat it. We need to rest here.

This is where, the when, I want to be. It is His, and He has promised to be in the Gathering today.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Mind of God

“...but just as it is written [in Isaiah 64:4], ‘Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.’ For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit Who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words...for [as it says in Isaiah 40:13] ‘who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him’? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:9-13,16).

When the apostle speaks of “God” when also speaking of the Son and Spirit (as in the passage above), we have reason to believe he is specifically referring to the Person of the Father:
  • “Grace to you and peace from God our Father...” (1:3).
  • “...for us there is but one God, the Father, from Whom are all things and we exist for Him” (8:6).
  • “...then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father” (15:24).

The world certainly cannot know the thoughts of God (the Father), otherwise they would have known the eternal mystery of God revealed in the cross of Christ: “...we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:7,8). When the New Testament speaks of “mystery,” it specifically means God’s eternal plan to save a people through His Son in the fullness of time (Romans 16:25-27; Ephesians 1:9,10; 3:1-12; Colossians 1:25-2:2; 1 Timothy 3:16). If they did not understand the mystery (despite the fact that it was attested to by the Old Testament, Luke 24:26,27,44-47; John 1:45; 5:39; Acts 26:22,23; 28:23), they could not comprehend the blessings that would come through its fulfillment in Christ.

Oh, there are eternal, infinite, joy-unspeakable (1 Peter 1:8), absolutely complete blessings through the Son of God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:3,4). “Has blessed” (ευλογησας, aorist active participle) means...well, it means exactly what the English says it means. The Father has blessed (in the past, not in the far future) the saints with every blessing in His Son, and every eternal (“heavenly”) blessing is in the Son without exception. What we gain in union with Christ is the all-sufficient and eternal provision of the Father. We need nothing else than is already our re-birthright in Christ.

How does our experiential knowledge of this occur?

Believers are given insight into the thoughts of the Father through union with the mind of the Son by the revelation of the Holy Spirit (see the Trinity here!).

Knowledge of the Father’s mind, will, plan, and provision are revealed through His Son.
  • “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27//Luke 10:22).
  • “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18).
  • “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also...He who has seen Me has seen the Father...” (John 14:7,9).

The Spirit, Who is one God with the Father and Son, knows all the thoughts of God. He comes to us through the Son (Luke 24:49; John 15:26; 16:7; Acts 2:33) and at the same time seals us in union with the Son (Ephesians 1:13). Our “contact point” with the Triune God is the indwelling Holy Spirit. How do we experience Him?

We experience the Holy Spirit through the Word He has given us. Notice that 1 Corinthians 2:9-16 begins and ends with quotes from the prophet Isaiah (both Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, and all of Scripture is breathed forth by God the Holy Spirit). The Spirit unites us to the mind of the Son and thereby reveals the thoughts of the Father to us through the Scripture. It is by the Word and Spirit (together, never separate) that we know the mind of the Trinity.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Comfort One Another

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Most of us are pretty familiar with these verses. You’re also probably well-acquainted will the usually divisive efforts to fit the “rapture” described here into Revelation, 1 Corinthians 15, Matthew 24//Mark 13, or even Daniel (despite the fact that Paul doesn’t indicate that such integration is worthy of our attention). In consideration of these verses, the only time the last verse is mentioned is at a funeral. This is odd, since this verse is the only one with a command.

Just in case we don’t get it, though, Paul repeats himself immediately after this.

“Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, ‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (5:1-11).

Paul ends this section the same way he ended 4:13-18. In 4:18 he commanded us to “comfort [παρακαλειτε] one another.” In 5:11 he commands us to “encourage [παρακαλειτε] one another.” Same command. He says it twice. In the first section he is concerned with their knowledge (“we do not want you to be uninformed”). In the second section this is not his focus (“you have no need of anything to be written to you”), even though the theme is the same. What’s different about the second section?

Whereas the first section describes the culmination of the last days, the second section gives us an ethic for living day-by-day through the last days. All the days between the first and second coming of Christ are the last days (Acts 2:16,17; Hebrews 1:2; James 5:3; 1 John 2:18). We cannot live through the last days like they are any other days. We are reminded that we are “all sons of light and sons of day,” and have nothing to do with spiritual darkness/sleep. We are commanded to “be sober” by a constant living in and growth in faith, love, and “the hope of salvation.” The reality of the culmination (“we will live together with Him”) is repeated.

Again, we are to “comfort” or “encourage” one another. We cannot do it alone, and Paul reminds us by these commands that we must do it together.

There is a difficulty of translating the Greek word παρακαλεω (here “comfort” or “encourage”). Our English word “comfort” comes originally from the Latin phrase cum fortis (“with strength”). The origination of the word doesn’t carry with it the empathetic or emotionally-supportive meaning it has now. For example, in the Latin Vulgate, the “strong man” of Luke 11:21 is said to be cum fortis, or “fully armed.”

When Paul gives this command in 4:18 and 5:11, he is not commanding us to console one another. We are being told to live a last days ethic with a view to the completion of the last days that makes us stronger (not emotionally assuaged) in our faith-lives together.

Live in these last days in such a way that we – together - are strong in the faith. Live in these last days in such a way that we are motivated and inspired and emboldened by the reality that we will inevitably and gloriously be together with our beautiful Lord.