Avoiding False Religion (Part Two)

Hosea 8:1-14

When Ephraim multiplied his altars for sin, they became his altars for sinning. Though I were to write out for him ten thousand points of my instruction, they would be regarded as something strange. Though they offer sacrificial gifts and eat the flesh, the Lord does not accept them. Now he will remember their guilt and punish their sins; they will return to Egypt. Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces; Judah has also multiplied fortified cities. I will send fire on their cities, and it will consume their citadels (8:11-14 CSB).

They had a religion of self-will. God intends that our lives conform to the standard of the Scriptures (8:12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). He expects us to be holy (set apart) as he is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). Our way of life from the inside out is to reflect God’s message and great aim, being set apart for his glory. But in Ephraimite (Ephraim is a name for the northern ten tribes) religion, the Holy Scriptures are regarded as something strange, “alien”, having no relevance to one’s life (8:12). The world thinks that godliness, marital faithfulness, self-control, prudence, humility and gentleness are strange things (cf. 1 Peter 4:4). The only relevance it knows is immediate self-gratification. This produces rebellion against God’s covenant law (8:1). Why obey something you think is weird and irrelevant?

When people refuse the Bible as God’s will for their lives, they become their own authority. What is right or wrong is then determined by human preference. Two ways Israel did this:

  • They chose rulers apart from God’s consent (8:4). A parallel in our day would be ordaining ministers apart from the requirements of God’s words; namely, setting up women as teaching pastors or tolerating ministers who do not have a firm hold of the faith once delivered to the saints. Churches look for managers or marketers, because they think their problem lies in their form rather than their substance. Sound teaching that sets forth God and his glory means little to many. “Just tell me enough so that I can live prosperously, and after I die, have a prosperous eternity.” God is forgotten! They tragically are unaware that eternal life involves knowing God and Christ (John 17:3).
  • They mixed themselves among the nations (8:8-10) Today the church mixes herself with the world by adopting unspiritual, ungodly, unbiblical attitudes and practices. How is the contemporary western church, claiming to be God’s nation, different from the world? What of the way she measures success? The way she markets herself? The lifestyle her members live?

They had a religion of empty ritual. Outwardly, everything seemed to be in order. Worshiping in a certain way (that is assumed to be attractive to the current lusts of the culture) is very important in Ephraimite religion. “This is the way we worship here.” Ephraim built altars for sin offerings (8:11). This looks good, doesn’t it? She seemed to confess the guilt of sin. Ephraim offered sacrifices to the Lord (8:13). Wasn’t she confessing her need for redemption and cleansing to the Lord? Do not read too much into what ritual and the recitation of the creeds are supposed to mean. Ask about the understanding of the heart. Is there love for the Lord and his truth? Are we set apart for what the Lord desires?

In reality, Ephraim’s situation was desperate. The altars were merely monuments to her sins, because she did not want to turn from her sins (8:11). It is one thing to sing the name of Jesus and speak of how kind and caring he is to affluent people in all their miseries; it is a very different matter to want to bring your life under his lordship. The Lord was not pleased with her sacrifices. She was ripe for judgment (8:13-14).

Are your sins taken away (Micah 7:18-19)? Do you have a promise from the living God that he will never remember them (Hebrews 8:12)? Such a promise and cleansing is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ and received through faith in him. Don’t build empty hopes on empty profession, your opinions, and religious rituals. Find the lasting, substantial joy of knowing God through Christ. When you come to know the Author of life, then you will experience life.

Grace and peace, David

The Power of the Cross: Reconciliation (Part Three)

Ephesians 2:11-18

He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit (2:17-18 NIV).

Let’s look deeper at this reconciliation. God in Christ formed a new people of God. In the past, this aspect of reconciliation was underemphasized. This severely hurt the church when it needed this truth the most in a changing world. The church had an opportunity to demonstrate that she is God’s new society, but she wandered far into the swamp of worldliness. This happened at least twice in America, especially in the 1840s-1860s and the 1940s-1960s.

On the cross Christ accomplished the final fulfillment of the law, meaning the law covenant given at Sinai, and so he abolished it and its commandments and regulations (cf. Romans 6:14; 7:6; 10:4; 2 Corinthians 3:4-16; Galatians 3:19-25; Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 7:18; 8:6-13; 9:1, 10; 10:1-10). Christ satisfied all the demands of the law for his people, and so we are legally free from it. We do not and cannot achieve a righteous way of life by putting ourselves under the law.

At the same time, the Lord created a new man or a new humanity in himself out of former Jews and Gentiles, reconciling both to God in his one body through the cross. Here is an important aspect of the power of the cross: the creation of a new people of God (cf. Ephesians 3:6).

What is the outcome of this reconciliation that makes us Christ’s new people?

  • We share his peace (2:17). Christ’s peace not only means the absence of hostility, but also the presence of great spiritual blessings. We belong to God. We are adult sons and daughters of God; we are free! We have the Holy Spirit of God, who keeps us, fills us, empowers us, transforms us, assures us, and makes Christ’s presence known to us.
  • We have access to God (2:18). This means “that the relationship is restored, that friendly relationship with God whereby we are acceptable to Him and have assurance that he is well disposed towards us” (Lloyd-Jones). Here is the beauty of worship in the gospel. You and I can boldly share fellowship with the Holy, Almighty, Sovereign God, as the Holy Spirit makes real to us the presence of the risen, ascended Christ to us.
  • We together form a holy temple in the Lord in which God lives by his Spirit (2:19-22). We are “home”, God’s home. In a practical sense for you and me, eternal joy, peace, and glory begins in your gathering of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, it does for believers in Jesus. But you can only realize it by faith. We must by faith in Jesus see one another in him.

Have you ever arrived for a gathering of your physical, extended family exhausted from a long ride in a car in the driving rain? You are weary, and you get drenched on your way into the house. You want to be there, but you feel out of sorts. But you get in the house, and your family welcomes you, takes your wet jacket, leads you over to the fire to get warm, and brings you a soothing drink to refresh your spirit. And you say, “Ah, it feels so good to be home.”

This is what I want you to understand and live. Since God has reconciled us to him through the power of the cross of Christ, we’re in God’s home. Here is peace, beauty, joy, and glory begun, if you will grasp this through faith in Christ. A church is not a place you go to that has nice buildings and exciting, glitzy programs. A church is the people of Christ, whom he has reconciled to the Father by the power of his cross. You can feel at home among Christ’s new covenant people. You ought to feel at home with them! Are you reconciled to God?

Grace and peace, David

Church Life – Respect

1 Timothy 5:1-2

Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father. Talk to younger men as you would to your own brothers. Treat older women as you would your mother, and treat younger women with all purity as you would your own sisters (NLT).

Years ago when I was a pastor in upstate New York, one of the men of the church gave me a study Bible. He frankly confessed that he had used it for a while and didn’t like it. That’s why he gave it to me. (I appreciated his candor, but it made me wonder why you would give your pastor something you yourself didn’t like. I suppose every pastor can provide stories of similar gifts.)

I must admit that I was underwhelmed by the gift, and I put it aside. A few years passed and I moved to Pennsylvania. The binding of the Bible I had used for notes broke, and so I picked up the long unused study Bible to use it for note taking. (I usually use an unmarked Bible for preaching, since it’s easier to read. I think a preacher should have an open Bible with him during the message.) Now the binding on that study Bible is broken, and I mainly use it for reference.

I tell that story to tell this. A question came up in our Sunday morning meeting about the section headings in Bibles. They were added by the translators to help us easily find places in the text, and were not intended to be guides of interpretation. For that, I am glad. A few years ago, we focused on 1 Timothy at a men’s retreat. In preparation for that, I had read and reread 1 Timothy, and I had marked it up somewhat with colored pencils and short notes. The section heading above our text was “Advice About Widows, Elders and Slaves”. Below it I had written, “The church as a family.” In another study Bible during another study, I wrote “Family attitude toward others in the church”.  I think that presents the idea of the section more comprehensively. Yes, it does talk about widows, elders, and slaves, but in our religious culture’s individualistic and institutional views of the church, we miss the idea of the church as a family. The local church in the New Testament is much more than sitting in a building with some people that might also worship there.

Too often Christian people fail to think of others in the church as our family. Perhaps they might be thought of as friends, but not family. Church members know that they ought to be outwardly nice and even pitch in to provide meals and presents at bridal and baby showers. But being nice is not the same as being family. To be a family requires gut-level acceptance, sympathy, and care… and respect.

We have lost a sense of the importance of respect in our spiritual and physical families. In the latter, spouses do not respect each other, children do not respect their parents, and parents do not respect their children either, for that matter. People have traded off respect in relationships for items of far less value, such as “personal space”. Instead of welcoming aunts and uncles, cousins and all the rest, people distance themselves from each other. But physical families are not today’s topic.

Our text in 1 Timothy requires respect to every person on every level of the spiritual family. This respect starts by vital recognition of each person as in Christ, as members of his body, and so of members of each other. A vital, spiritual union binds us together. Since we are in Christ, we are in the Father’s family as adult sons and daughters of God. Together we form a royal priesthood and are citizens in the Kingdom of God’s Son. So then, we must have gospel-formed opinions of each other. When we see the dignity of our shared position in Christ, we will look at each other with eyes filled with respect and embrace each other as fellow members of God’s family. This foundational bond will enable us to overcome all worldly distinctions, like ethnicity, educational attainments, economic levels, personality differences, and so forth. We will walk a new path together as family members in Christ, and we thus respect each other. When we respect one another, we will begin to reach out to each other in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT).

Do not hold yourself back from your brothers and sisters in Christ. They need your love, and you need theirs!

Grace and peace, David

Our Conduct in Church

1 Timothy 3:14-15

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth (NLT).

The Bible is God’s word; it is God’s voice to us, to people. It speaks about God and mankind. God delivered it to us in human language and in human circumstances. These circumstances provided opportunities to talk to his people through all generations. In this letter, the Spirit spoke concerning our conduct in the church. As always, church in the New Testament does not mean “in a building” but “in our relationships with God and his people”, since “church” means “assembly” or “gathering” or “congregation”.

The great purpose, then, is to present proper conduct with God and his people. First Timothy is not about church government or rules for church order. It concerns how you and I are to share life together and with God. What makes this letter so volatile in the contemporary church is the obsession of many with themselves and their opinions rather than believing submission to what the Spirit plainly said through the apostle. The same self-obsession leads many to ignore the family values of life together in the church. (Read especially chapter five.) This letter deserves fresh, multiple readings of its text, putting aside study Bibles, commentaries, and church manuals, until we have listened together to the text, and have attained a submissive attitude toward its teaching.

As we listen humbly, we will hear teaching about what the church is. As has often been said in various forms, we must know what we are in Christ before we can practice life in Christ. In our text, we discover three ideas about the church.

  • We are the household of God. We are God’s family. He is the Father, we his children. He is the leader and sets the values, ideas, aims, mission, attitudes, and kindred spirit of his family. He tells us how we are to treat each other (5:1-2). Matters like faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness have a high priority in God’s household (6:11; cf. 1:4-5). The Father wants all to sense that such gospel-formed attitudes and actions are to be felt and experienced by all.
  • We are the assembly of the living God. He is life itself, and we are alive in Christ with him. The church is a gathering of life, of spiritually alive people with the living God. The church is organic by nature, not institutional. It is people sharing life, not trying to lead a successful religious business. Life is valued more than profit or loss. Since we live in this fallen world and still sin, God and we know that this life will be messy and challenging, but it remains life shared with the living God.
  • We guard the word; we are the pillar and foundation of the truth. We firmly hold to its teachings, passing them from person to person, and from generation to generation. Truth matters because we know it is the way of salvation to all the people groups of the earth (2:4). We also proclaim the truth to others. We use it to evangelize or “fish for people” (Mark 1:15). To put it this way, we know our mission and how to accomplish it with the help of the Holy Spirit.

This weekend as you meet with God’s people, seek to imbibe and to spread these values. Listen to your Father’s voice, follow the Father’s Son, and worship by the Father’s Spirit. Enjoy the reality that you are in the assembly of the living God! Share his love with others in his family.

Grace and peace, David

A Place for You (Part Two)

DSCN02401 Corinthians 12:7-26

Christ’s people have a variety of functions in his spiritual body (12:14). This is illustrated by hands, feet, eyes, ears and noses (12:15-18). The Spirit of God is teaching us that there are clearly defined bodily functions and parts of the body to fulfill those functions.

Your position in the church is an adult son; you have authority to minister because you are a priest; the place of your ministry is determined by God. Since we have spiritual gifts and have been shaped by the Spirit to serve, we perform various spiritual functions in the local gathering of saints (church) we attend. To use the illustration, God makes you, a priest and an adult son, to act as a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear or a nose.

Many parts are necessary in the body for all spiritual functions to be fulfilled (12:17). Clearly, this makes the spiritual maturity of every member of the body important. In the new covenant way of life, this is very important. (I will spare you from an overdose of adjectives and adverbs, but I’m pausing here so that you will reflect on this point.) The new covenant way of life is not about pressing people to conform under a code of laws, rules, etc. This “checklist morality” is the focus for Christian behavior that many people are zealous to enforce by “church discipline”. But that is not my subject. The new covenant way of life is about people in Christ sharing life in the Spirit, which involves mutual service. You do not achieve service by investigating whether everyone is keeping the code. You serve because you have a vital relationship with others that impels you to show concern by practical actions for the benefit of each other. It is a sense that all of us, yes, all of us, are necessary for the spiritual health and progress and mission of our local gathering. For example, your timely use of your gift of encouragement might be what the Spirit uses in me today to persevere in the struggles of life. The personal Spirit enables spiritual people to provide care for Christ’s people.

So then, think on a couple ideas. First, a few people cannot possibly do everything. God intends a better way. That better way is the involvement of every member of the assembly. Some people have remarkable people skills that bring people to open up their hearts to each other. It is a joy to behold. Second, the tragedy is that people gifted by the Spirit are not fulfilling their function. This means that some parts of body ministry are left unfulfilled and other parts are weakly done by members unequipped to do them. They see the need and valiantly seek to serve, but… it would be so much better if those with the right spiritual skill sets were doing them. Try lifting your fork to your mouth with your ear! I don’t think the job will be done very well. If you are thinking, “That’s ridiculous! You can’t pick up a fork with your ear!” then you might be able to understand the weakness of the church in our time.

In every local church, God arranges the parts as he intended (12:18-20). If the Lord has saved you and brought you to a gathering of his people, he clearly has a purpose for you to fulfill in it. God your Father wants you to experience the joy of fulfilling his purpose for you as you share life with others. You find your purpose by learning the needs of the body and your desires and abilities in reference to those needs. Others should notice your gifts. But you can’t wait for others to push you to do it. I don’t want someone to tell my liver every morning, “Please do your liver thing, whatever it is.” Start to serve one another in love, and the Spirit will provide insight to you and others that you are learning to function in your local church. If you are not connecting with other followers of Christ, seek a local gathering to join this week.

Grace and peace, David

A Place for You (Part One)

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1 Corinthians 12:7-26

In this article I want to build on some teachings about the Christian and the church that we all (should) know. But in writing to such a broad audience, it is impossible to know where you are in your spiritual growth in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 3:18). But I hope you know the following:

  • The church is the spiritual body of Christ
  • Every follower of Christ is a member of his spiritual body
  • Everyone in Christ’s body shares many blessings: new life, a vital relationship with God, the position of an adult son, the standing of a royal priest, and the possession of one or more spiritual gifts to equip each one for ministry in the body
  • These truths have a global and local significance

Each of us is given a place in the body by the Holy Spirit. No Christian is left out (12:7). Every learner of Jesus has a significant place to fill. Our Sovereign Lord has formed each of us with a unique combination of personality, genetic material, family and ethnic heritage, personal experiences and spiritual gifts to display his glory in special ways. And each part of the body of Christ will be in the process of development or decline. This can be very complex! Surprising as it may sound; you might be improving in some areas and declining in others. What is your spiritual health?

Your place in Christ’s spiritual body is for the common good (12:7). We live in a very “me-centered” time. “What is in this local gathering of believers for me?” is the only question many seem to consider. Two basic questions about any assembly (church) are: Does it delight in God’s truth? Does it delight to love God and people? Yet countless professed believers will focus on a church’s programs, facilities, “demographics” (ethnicity, economic and educational levels, and age groupings), and other less important matters. However, the Holy Spirit wants us to understand that he places us in a local church “for the common good”. Yes, we all are needy people in various ways. So then, we dare not look at a church from the standpoint of “what is this church doing for me?” That attitude has crippled churches for years. I boldly ask, “What are you doing for the good of people in Christ with whom you share life?” I think that way of putting it unmasks one of the hindrances to the church in our time. Those who know the Lord Christ share life in him. We want to share our lives with others who know the Lord. Ask, “What can I do for the benefit of my brothers and sisters in the Lord?”

The Spirit equips each one for his or her place in the body (12:8-11). The Spirit of God does not thrust Christ’s people into positions unprepared. He gives each person special abilities to minister in the body for the common good. Consider Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Peter 4:10-11. Every member has a function to fulfill. For example, those gifted with the gift of showing mercy need to step in and do the job when there is a need for mercy. If you see a need in your fellowship of believers and think that you know how to meet that need, the Lord might be calling you to serve and to meet that need.

The Spirit determines what place each one has (12:11). This causes people discomfort. We want to fill a function in the church that we like, and we fail to appreciate others who are functioning to the best of their ability. There is no reason to “seek the gifts”, as many use the term, since the Spirit gives according to God’s own pleasure. We can be sure that the Lord has very good reasons for giving people the gifts that he does. This ought to cause us to appreciate and admire the Spirit’s will. We ought to rejoice in the way that the Lord has put his body together. Are you fulfilling a function in your local church? What is God doing through you? How does your ministry show forth the power of the ascended Christ by his Spirit?

Grace and peace, David

An Alternative to an Empty Life

DSCN0546Luke 12:13-21

In the Four Gospels we read selected accounts of the earthly mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. He came to set us free from an empty way of life (1 Peter 1:18). Often we fail to realize the depths of that emptiness. Let’s listen to how our Redeemer revealed that emptiness in his teaching and pointed us to a better alternative.

Luke has already set the scene for this teaching session. A crowd of many thousands gathered (12:1), and it was not a calm crowd. Please do not think of a typical church service in our day where people are bored with the building, the pastor, the music, the ritual prayers, the message, and each other. No, this crowd was trampling on each other in their shared eagerness to listen to Jesus. (The time when modern churchgoers trample upon each other is to get out of the building and the parking lot.) This, however, did not mean that this crowd was filled with spiritual, godly, heavenly-minded people.

After the Lord spoke directly to his disciples (12:1-12) about the important topic of fear and worry, a question comes from the crowd. Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” [All italicized quotes are from the NIV.] Ah, there can be many people in “church”, and many of their hearts are not thinking about meeting with the living God and his dearly loved Son, but their minds are on other personal and “important” matters. People are very easily distracted from God.

The Lord Jesus, instead of brushing aside the man’s impertinent request, used it as a teaching opportunity, because he had come to make God known and to reveal what we are to us. Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” It was a dangerous course to ask Jesus questions. The man perhaps thought that Jesus would take his side out of a concern to see justice done. But Jesus unmasked the greed in the man’s heart. Though he had gathered with the crowd to hear Jesus, he was a functional idolater (Colossians 3:5). Jesus warned his hearers of getting their identity from their possessions. This is a problem in our affluent culture. It is too easy to confuse what we have with who we are. We can learn this about ourselves from how we evaluate others by where they live, what they drive, the clothes they wear, or the places they go. People might say they admire those who devote their lives to helping others, but are they willing to divest themselves of their possessions to do it? We can drift into this kind of transfer of identity, which is why Jesus calls us to be on our guard against all kinds of greed. Where should our identity come from?

Next, Jesus told a story to warn everyone about greediness. And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” This parable is very well-known, and I will make only a few observations. First, the providence of God was working for the prosperity of this rich man. While there is skill in being a successful farmer as well as other occupations, God’s rule of the world overrides the skill of people. If there had been a couple years of drought, the rich farmer would not have had a large crop. Second, God’s blessing on his crop had brought the rich man to the need to make new choices. Prosperity and poverty require us to make decisions. What should a person do when he or she prospers? Consider Romans 2:4. Third, the rich man’s heart was filled with himself. He was proficient at using the first person pronouns. Greed is idolatry, and so is a consuming interest in oneself. Fourth, he thought he knew the future. People proudly assume that they are in charge, that they can map out their lives. The rich man’s attitude can be shared by anyone. Fifth, he lived for pleasure. Hmm, it sounds like he was a “last day’s sort of person” (cf. 2 Timothy 3:1-4). Sixth, God interrupted his plans. This is what people forget. The living God can expose our true emptiness in a moment.

Jesus made his point. “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” The Lord Christ is teaching us the nature of true repentance. We must turn from a self-focused view of life to building our life and identity in relationship to God. Being rich toward God is true wealth. We must prefer the true God over all things.

What is the question you would like to ask Jesus? Since he knows your heart, how would he answer you?

Grace and peace, David