Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: December, 2016

THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH

 

173

Paul in Athens

Review:

Characteristics of a New Testament Church

Robert Gessner

Spread the Word, 2000

24 pp., p.b.

 

Robert Gessner is affiliated with a fellowship of believers generally known to outsiders as the “Plymouth Brethren,” although they themselves eschew any denominational titles.  In Characteristics of a New Testament Church he has given us a brief but thought provoking study on what a New Testament church should look like.  It is certainly a subject worthy of consideration by any genuine Bible believing Christian.

Much of what Mr. Gessner has to say is obviously true and many of the issues he raises need to be taken seriously by Christians today.  He points out, for example, that in the New Testament there was no distinction between “clergy” and “laity,” that denominationalism is unscriptural, that teaching in the church should be based solidly on Scripture, that prayer is central to the life of the church, and that there should be room for the exercise of spiritual gifts.  He is also quite correct in criticizing modern churches for the ways they try to increase membership and raise funds.  To all of this we can only say a hearty “amen”!

In some other areas, however, he wades into treacherous waters.  He tries to argue, for example, that the Lord’s Supper “ought to be given absolute priority over every other meeting of the church” (p. 2).  Yet when we read the general description of a New Testament church in the Book of Acts, the Lord’s Supper, while it is obviously important, is listed as just one of several different activities (Acts 2:42,46).

Mr. Gessner also raises the difficult but important question about the role of women in the church.  Here he runs into the apparent contradiction between I Cor. 14, in which women are instructed to remain silent, and I Cor. 11, in which women are described as praying or prophesying, albeit with an appropriate head covering.  The apparent solution to the problem is that the early church appears to have functioned on two different levels.  According to Acts 2:46, the early Christians in Jerusalem were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house . . .” (NKJV).  What this suggests is that there were large public meetings in the temple and small gatherings in private homes.  Elsewhere in the New Testament we are told of city churches in places like Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalanika, and of house churches (e.g., Rom. 16:5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15).  Very likely, then, I Cor. 11 describes small gatherings in private homes where the Lord’s Supper was observed, while I Cor. 15 describes larger public gatherings where unbelievers might be present.  Women, then, were allowed to pray and prophesy in the house assemblies, albeit with their heads covered, but were not permitted to speak in the larger public meetings.

Mr. Gessner says that “the word of God is very clear and explicit” that women should remain silent and wear head coverings (p. 16).  Yet the assumption on the part of many expositors is that the head covering was a cultural adaptation, and Mr. Gessner does not furnish us with an exegesis of I Cor. 11:3-16.  (A strong case can be argued, however, that the passage is in fact enjoining the practice of women wearing head coverings).

Mr. Gessner, of course, is not the first person to consider what the Bible has to say about the church, and theologians from a couple of the denominations that he criticizes (Presbyterians, Baptists) have written extensively on the subject.  Yet the fact remains that over time the older denominations drifted away from their biblical moorings and settled into an institutionalized pattern of church life that bore little resemblance to that of the early church.  Instead of being close-knit fellowships of Spirit-filled believers, they have become purely human organizations managed by professional clergy.  They adopted practices and procedures that had no warrant in Scripture and contributed nothing to the spiritual life of the people.  The churches spiritually became lifeless corpses.

Mr. Gessner’s little booklet, then, raises some valid questions, and the Evangelical community at large would do well to take those questions seriously.

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FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD

 

 

The whole point of Christmas is beautifully summed up in the most famous verse in the Bible: “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” (John 3:16; NKJV).  And it is the most famous verse in the Bible for good reason: it encapsulates in just a few words the central point of the Christian message.

The verse begins by saying “For God so loved the world . . .”   This is itself is a remarkable thing.  John almost always uses the word “world” in a negative sense: “For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:16).  The world is a world of lost sinners who are in rebellion against God and have given themselves over to sinful desires and vices.  It is a world that is patently guilty in the sight of a perfectly just and holy God.

How, then, could God “love the world”?  Certainly not in the sense that He found the world adorable, for it most certainly was not.  Rather the word “love” is used in a different sense here.  It is the pity and compassion that God shows towards a suffering humanity.  It is a love which is directed towards the unlovable, and it is a love which is marked by self-sacrifice.  “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7,8).

But how did God demonstrate His love toward us?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”   As noted earlier, when Jesus is called God’s “only begotten Son,” that means that He is God’s Son in some special and unique way.  Jesus was God’s Son from all eternity, and shared the Father’s divine nature.  That means that when God “gave His only begotten Son” He was giving up the one Person who was nearest and dearest to Himself – His most precious and beloved relation.

And the text says that He “gave” His only begotten Son.  When one person “gives” something to someone else he surrenders control over it.  And how did God the Father “give” His Son?  By sending Him into the world to die on the cross.  By letting His Son assume the guilt of lost sinners and bear the penalty in Himself.  But letting Him die a slow agonizing death.  The sky was darkened and Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  It had to have been the most horrible moment of Jesus’ entire existence.  The Father punished the Son for our sins.

But why would God ever do such a thing?  What could possibly be gained by it?  Our text says, “that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  The recalls the language of Daniel 12:2, where speaking of the future resurrection of the dead it says

“And many of the those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,

Some to everlasting life,

Some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Jesus Himself had warned His disciples, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28; the word translated “destroy” is a different form of the same verb translated “perish” in John 3:16).  What is at stake here is nothing less than man’s eternal destiny.  We will spend eternity in either heaven or hell.  Salvation is what makes the difference, and that required an atonement for sin.  Only Christ could do that.

But there is a condition attached to the promise.  The promise of salvation is to “whoever believes in Him.”  The phrase in the Greek (ho pisteuon eis auton) suggests more than just believing something about Jesus.  It implies placing one’s trust in (eis) Jesus, relying on Him as our only hope of salvation.  It requires a personal and conscious act of commitment on our part.

The birth of Christ, then, was an unparalleled demonstration of divine love toward a sinful and rebellious human race.  And we miss its full significance unless we ourselves recognize our personal need.  We are fallen sinners; Christ came into the world to save us.  Let us go to Him in full repentance and faith to receive the forgiveness of our sins and new life from above!

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

 

 

“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”                            John 1:4,5; NKJV

 

The Bible often uses the word “darkness” as a metaphor for man’s lost condition.  It refers partly to man’s spiritual blindness, and partly to his evil deeds.  When we are in a dark room we cannot see.  We grope around blindly.  We stumble over objects we cannot see.  And that is how the Bible describes the spiritual blindness of fallen man.

“The way of the wicked is like darkness;

They do not know what makes them stumble.”

(Prov. 4:19)

The natural man, the man outside of Christ, tries to shut God out of his thinking.  He tries to devise an alternative explanation of reality.  And yet he must still live in a world created by God, and all he succeeds in doing with his secular thinking is to blind himself to reality.  He squanders his substance on the fleeting pleasures of life, wrecks his relationships and ruins his health.  He harms himself and others in the process.  By living for self he destroys himself.  In the end he is left with an empty, ruined life.

But darkness is also a vivid image of all the evil that exists in the world.  The apostle Paul could speak of “the unfruitful works of darkness,” and says that “it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret” (Eph. 5:11,12).  As human beings we have a natural propensity towards evil; and yet we also have a conscience, and are aware that many of the things that we do are wrong.  As a result we experience shame and try to hide our actions from public view.  And so darkness becomes a cloak for evil deeds, the place where shameful things are done.

Moreover darkness is a metaphor for the pervasive gloom and despair that results from man’s fallen condition.  The psalmist could speak of

“Those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,

Bound in affliction and irons –

Because they rebelled against the words of God,

And despised the counsel of the Most High . . .”

(Ps. 107:10,11)

The man without God finds himself in a hopeless position.  He simply exists, and he has no realistic hope of life after death.  He drowns his sorrows in alcohol and drugs.

“Therefore justice is far from us,

Nor does righteousness overtake us:

We look for light, but there is darkness!

We grope for the wall like the blind,

And we grope as if we had no eyes;

We stumble at noon day as at twilight;

We are as dead men in desolate places.”

(Isa. 59:9,10)

This, then, is the world into which Christ was born 2,000 years ago.  And John says that “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

There had been, of course, prophets that had come before Jesus, the most recent of which had been John the Baptist.  But Jesus was a prophet unlike any which had gone before Him.  As the Son of God He had a comprehensive knowledge of all things.  Moreover He was perfectly blameless in His personal conduct.  As such He was a ray of light shining in the darkness, exposing evil and enabling us to understand God’s purpose and will for our lives.  He enables us to see things as they actually are and live accordingly.  As Jesus Himself put it, “I am the light of the world.  He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).  “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me will not abide in darkness” (John 12:46).

“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it,” John tells us (John 1:5).  The word translated “comprehend” literally means “to seize, lay hold of, take possession of.”  The commentators debate exactly what John meant by this, but the context suggests that the world rejected the light – refused to take it as its own.  And herein lies the tragedy of the Incarnation: Christ came into the world bringing salvation, but the majority of the human race refuses to accept it.  “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).  In our modern world we call this “secularism” – we banish religion from the public sphere; we even try to take Christ out of Christmas!

Christ is the light of the world.  The world is a dark place indeed, filled with malice and deceit, sorrow and despair.  For all of our social and economic problems, our root problem is spiritual: we are estranged from our Creator.  Christ has come to us as a light from heaven, offering us a path of escape.  Has He shone His light in our hearts today?

AND THE WORD BECAME FLESH

 

 

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

John 1:14; NKJV

 

We have seen, then, in our last blog post, that Jesus is “the Word,” the Logos, the Creator of the universe.  In John 1:14, however, the apostle John goes on to make a most remarkable statement: “And the Word became flesh.”  And this brings us right to the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation.

The Bible uses the word “flesh” to denote human existence in all of its earthly weakness, limitations and frailty.  “And the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh . . .” (Gen. 6:3).

“All flesh is grass,

And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

Because the breath of the Lord blows upon it . . .”

(Isa. 40:6,7)

Here, then, is the remarkable thing about the Incarnation: that the infinite God could become finite man, and be both at the same time.

John goes on to say that Christ “dwelt among us.”  The word translated “dwelt” literally means “to pitch a tent,” and here apparently refers to the temporary nature of Christ’s stay here on earth.  It also recollects the Tabernacle in the Old Testament, and God’s “Shekinah” glory which accompanied Israel through the wilderness.  And John says that Christ dwelt “among us” – He shared our earthly existence: our sorrows and joys, and even our temptations.

And then John goes on to say “and we beheld His glory”; and here John is speaking of his own first- hand experience as one who knew Jesus personally during Jesus’ ministry here on earth.  John personally had the opportunity Jesus perform miracles and of listening to His teaching.  And John, along with Peter and James, had the special privilege of witnessing the Transfiguration, in which Jesus’ face shone and His clothes became bright white; and they heard a voice from heaven saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear him!” (Matt. 17:1-8).

John says that Jesus’ glory was “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”  All Christians are sons of God, in the sense that they have been adopted by Him.  But Jesus was God’s Son in a special, unique way.  He was the One who shared the Father’s eternal divine nature.  In that sense He was God’s “only Son.”

And finally John says that the Son’s glory was “full of grace and truth.”  “Grace” is God’s goodwill or kindness, often undeserved by its beneficiaries.  John usually uses the word “truth” in its usual English sense: that which is true, as opposed to what is false.   And both of these, according to John, were brought to us by Jesus.  “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).  Christ, through His teaching and example brought us a full and perfect revelation of the will of God.  But more importantly, He brought us salvation, the forgiveness of sins.

This, then, is the remarkable thing about the birth of Christ: that the eternal Son of God would come down here to earth and take on the form of a finite human being.  And why?  Because He loved us enough to die on the cross to save us from our sins. It was an amazing act of love and condescension.           How much do we owe Him!  And how we should imitate His example of self-sacrificing love!

“Who is this so weak and helpless,

Child of lowly Hebrew maid,

Rudely in a stable sheltered,

Coldly in a manger laid?

‘Tis the Lord of all creation,

Who this wondrous path hath trod;

He is God from everlasting,

And from everlasting God.”

Wm. Walsham How

WHAT CHILD IS THIS?

This, of course, is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Christ.  But who exactly is Christ?  And why is His birth so special?

The apostle John had the privilege of knowing Christ personally during Christ’s earthly ministry, and John must often have asked himself the same questions.  Jesus was clearly no ordinary human being.  But what exactly was He?  The Fourth Gospel is John’s personal reflection on His experience with Jesus Christ.

John begins by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1; NKJV).  The phrase “In the beginning” takes us back to the creation account in Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).  The Greek word translated “Word” is Logos, but it is hard to find an exact English equivalent.  Ancient Greek had two different words for “word”: rhema, that which is said or spoken; and logos, a word as embodying a concept or idea.  The two words overlap somewhat in meaning, but logos often came to refer to the inward thought itself.

The ancient Greeks were impressed with the order and structure of reality.  But what was the source of this order and structure?  The Stoics argued that there was a kind of natural law, which they called the “logos” which was the organizing principle of nature.  The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, in turn, picked up on the idea, and tried to use it to explain the creation account in Genesis. These ideas, in turn, were taken up by some Christian heretics in John’s day. But for all of these thinkers the logos was an abstract principle or impersonal force, subordinate to God.  John was especially concerned in his gospel to refute these ideas.

What John was careful to emphasize is that the Logos, that which gives order and structure to created reality, is not a mere abstract principle, but rather a Person, the very Son of God, come in the flesh.  As John describes it, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).  He had an existence with God prior to His incarnation here on earth, and, in fact, was God himself, a member of the Trinity.  Moreover He was the Creator: “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (v. 3).  The universe has a rational order to it precisely because it was designed by an intelligent Supreme Being.  Thus all of the world ultimately owes its very existence to Him.

What is remarkable, then, about the incarnation is that the Creator of the world entered into the world that He had created: “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him . . .” (v. 10).  Yet tragically, “and the world did not know Him . . .” (Ibid.).  Our Creator, our Lord and Master, came and dwelled here on earth among us.  And yet He was largely rejected and eventually crucified.  It was the supreme irony of human history.

What does all of this mean for us today?  We live in a rationally ordered universe: it was created by design, and everything has meaning and purpose.  There are ethical norms to which we must all conform.  And our Creator came into the world, taught us how to live, and died to save us from our sins.  We today live 2,000 years after His earthly ministry, but we are confronted with the same basic issues faced by His First Century contemporaries.  Now that the Savior has come, now that the truth has become known, what will we do with it?  The choice is ours; the consequences are eternal.

The wonder of Christmas is that the tiny infant that Mary cradled in her arms was none other than the eternal Son of God, the Creator of the universe!

“What Child is this, who laid to rest,

On Mary’s lap is sleeping?

Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,

While watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring Him laud –

The Babe, the Son of Mary.”

Wm. C. Dix