Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: February, 2018

THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD

 

Psalm 139

What makes it possible to have a personal relationship with God himself is the fact that God is a Person, a conscious Being who can think and feel and act.  And an important part of His personhood is the fact that He knows things – He is conscious of other objects.  And what is especially remarkable is the fact that the Ruler of the universe knows each one of us individually.

This is brought out in a striking way in Psalm 139.  As David reflects on his relationship with God his is struck by the fact that God knows everything, and that God knows him personally.

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.”

(Psalm 139:1; NKJV).

Moreover God knew David exhaustively and comprehensively.  God observed all of his actions: his sitting down and his rising up (vv. 1,2), and his lying down (v. 3).  God hears every word that he says (v. 4), and knows what David is thinking (v. 2).

Moreover there is no place where David can go to hide from God.  If he were to go up to heaven, God is obviously there (v. 8).  But what about hell (sheol – the abode of the dead)?  God can even find him there too (v. 8b).  If David went aboard a ship and sailed to some distant land God could find him there as well (vv. 9,10).  Nor can David try to hide in the dark.

“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall fall on me,]

Even the night shall be light about me.

Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,

But the night shines as the day;

The darkness and the light are both alike to You.” (vv. 11,12)

God’s knowledge of David began while David was still in his mother’s womb (vv. 13-16).  In short, there was nothing about David that God did not know.

The fact that God knows everything about us can be both comforting and intimidating at the same time.  On the one hand David could say,

“You have hedged me behind and before,

And laid Your hand upon me.”  (v. 5)

And,

“Even there Your hand shall lead me,

And Your right hand shall hold me.” (v. 10).

God knows all about us.  He is fully aware of the circumstances we face.  And, in fact, He knows things about our circumstances that we ourselves do not know.  And thus He is fully able to guide and protect us.  This consideration should enable us to go to Him in prayer in the full confidence that He will hear and answer.  But we need to learn to be patient and wait for His perfect timing and solution.  And for us, as finite, mortal human beings, that can be hard.

But God’s knowledge of us can be intimidating as well.  If He knows everything about us – everything we do, everything we say, everything we even think, there is nothing we can hide form Him.  Our entire hearts and lives are an open book to Him.  Thus in a very real sense we are personally accountable to our Creator for our actions.  Thus David concludes the psalm by saying:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart;

Try me, and know my anxieties;

And see if there is any wicked way in me,

And lead me in the way everlasting.”

(vv. 23,24).

Here he invites God to “search” him and “try” him.  The implication is that he wants God to judge his innermost thoughts, motives and desires.  This could also include David’s “anxieties” – his unsettling thoughts that might lead him to do the wrong thing.  And David specifically wants God to determine if there is any “wicked way” in him (lit., a “way of pain,” i.e., actions that cause pain in others).  And the ultimate object is to be led “in the way everlasting” – the path that leads to eternity.

Thus the God with whom we have to do is the true and living God – a conscious, personal Being who wants us to interact with Him in a genuine and sincere way.  As sinful, fallen human beings we try to ignore Him, to exclude Him from our lives.  But when we do so our lives are empty and meaningless.  For no fleeting pleasure, no finite earthly object can take the place of our Creator.  St Augustine said it well when he declared, “For thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it may find repose in thee” (Confessions, I.i).

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THE ETERNITY OF GOD

 

Death and eternity are the two great existential questions facing mortal man, and nothing accentuates the differences between God and man than this stark reality.  God is eternal, immortal; man dies.  Between the two modes of existence there is no comparison.

Moses was struck by this fact as he led the children of Israel through the wilderness.  What had begun as an exciting adventure turned into a moral tragedy, which led God to pronounce the frightful sentence that a whole generation of Israelites would perish in the wilderness.  Soon after this, or perhaps when it was all over, Moses was led to pen the words of Psalm 90, a somber reflection on death and eternity.

But Moses begins by reflecting on God’s eternity:

“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth,

Or ever You formed the earth and the world,

Even from everlasting, You are God.”

(Ps. 90:1,2; NKJV).

Theologians have long speculated that God stands outside of time.  But that is a philosophical concept, drawn from secular sources.  It is not really found in the Bible.  Rather, the Bible portrays God as existing for an endless succession of ages.  Moses looks at the mountains, the every epitome of strength and durability, and points out that even they at one time did not exist.  But God was there long before even that.  God was there before even the earth itself existed.

“Before the mountains were brought forth,

Or even You had formed he earth and the world,

Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”

The word translated “everlasting” (olam) means a long period of time in either the past or the future.  Thus the idea here is that the duration of God’s existence defies human comprehension.  In that regard He is infinitely greater than anything that we have ever experienced in the created reality.

Likewise from God’s perspective what seems like a long time to us is nothing to Him.

“For a thousand years in Your sight

Are like yesterday when it is past,

And like a watch in the night”  (v. 4).

For us eighty years is a lifetime.  A thousand years is virtually unimaginable.  But to Someone who has existed from all eternity, however, it is scarcely the blink of an eye.

Man, however, must confront his own mortality.  And this is the result of the sentence which God pronounce on us:

“You turn man to destruction,

And say ‘Return, O children of men.’”  (v. 3)

Moses goes on to compare human existence to a dream or to grass, something that is here today and vanishes without a trace tomorrow.  Herein lies the melancholy fact of human existence: as full of life and vitality as we may be today, there is nothing we can do to stop the approach of death.  Eventually we must all die, and will be nothing more than a tombstone in a cemetery.

All of this should lead us to a profound humility in the presence of God.  Here we are, frail, mortal creatures of the dust, here today and gone tomorrow, standing before God who is infinite, immortal and eternal.  His eternity should overwhelm us, and we should have a proper sense of our own relative insignificance.

But secondly, God’s eternity should inspire our confidence in Him.  We are subject to injury and disease, hunger and privation.  Our grasp on life is tenuous at best, and the best of human aids may fail us when we need them the most.  But God is eternal, untouched by the vicissitudes of human existence.  He will always be there, always able to help.  And, indeed, Moses ends his psalm by appealing to God for His help.

“And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us,

And establish the work of our hands for us . . .”  (v. 17).

But most importantly of all, the eternity of God should cause us to value Him far above every earthly, created thing.  Earthly things are finite, vulnerable to injury, and finally pass away.  God is the eternal good, infinite perfection, untouched by earthly weakness and frailty.  Which would we rather have?  Only a fool would choose the former.

As the English Puritan Stephen Charnock put it, “And truly, since nothing but God is eternal, nothing but God is worth the loving; and we do but a just right to our love, to pitch it upon that which can always possess us and by possessed by us; upon an object that cannot deceive our affection, and put it out of countenance by a dissolution.”

And that consideration should be enough to arrest any temptation to sin.  Again Charnock put it this way: “What transitory pleasures will not the thoughts of God’s eternity stifle?  When this work [i.e., meditating on God’s eternity] busieth a soul, it is too great to suffer it to descend, to listen to sleeveless errand from hell or the world.  The wanton allurements of the flesh will be put off with indignation.  The proffers of the world will be ridiculous when they are cast into the balance with the eternity of God, which sticking in our thoughts, we shall not be so easy a prey for the fowler’s gin.”  Charnock concludes by saying, “Let us therefore, often meditate upon this, but not in a bare speculation, without engaging our affections, and making every potion of the divine eternity end in a suitable impression upon our hearts.”  Amen!

WHY CHURCH?

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Many readers would undoubtedly agree with most of what we have said so far.  But in the minds of many younger people there remains an important question.  Granted the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ, why bother going to church?  Cannot someone worship God and have a relationship with Christ without going to church?

For many people the question arises because of bad church experiences they have had in the past.  Some pastors are domineering and tyrannical; some church members are judgmental and self-righteous.  Some churches are too commercialized.  There have been ugly church splits.  There have been sex scandals and financial impropriety.  And in all too many cases there is very little that is genuinely spiritual about the typical modern institutionalized church.  It is understandable, therefore, that many would want Christ but not the church.

The biblical answer to this is found in Hebrews 10:24,25: “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” (NKJV).  Why should we not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together”?  So that we can “stir up love and good works” and “exhort one another.”  And none of this can take place unless we have regular interaction with each other.

To understand what exactly this passage is getting at it is important to realize that the First Century church did not operate the way most modern churches do today.  In the First Century there were few, if any, church buildings, nor was there a professionally trained clergy.  Nor were there separate denominations.  Rather, the entire Christian community in a given city was considered a single church, so that it was possible to speak of the “church at Ephesus” or the “church of the Thessalonians.”  Each of these large metropolitan churches was governed by a board of elders (Acts 20:17) who were chosen from within the local church based on their spiritual gifts and maturity.  There was no “senior pastor.”  On certain occasions the entire, large, city-wide church would hold a meeting in some open, public place (Acts 5:12).

Within these large, city-wide churches there were smaller groups that met in private homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; Phln. 2).  It was in these smaller house churches that the Lord’s Table would be observed.  We have a description of one of these gatherings in Acts 20:6-12.  The believers were meeting in an upper room on a Sunday evening and Paul preached long into the night, after which they broke bread.  It would have been in these smaller gatherings that the believers would have had the opportunity to interact with each other.

In this context, then, it is easier to see how a church is supposed to function.  It is assumed that all baptized church members have been genuinely born again and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.  They are each given spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11) and they are to use these gifts to edify one another and build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13).  We do this by exhorting one another (Heb. 3:13), confessing our sins to each other (Jas. 5:16) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).  All of this necessitates some form of regular, small-group interaction, which is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.  It is the means by which we “stir up to love and good works” and “exhort one another.”

The Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from other Christians.  The basic ethical requirement of the Christian life is that we love one another, and that means that we must actually care for each other (I John 3:16-18).  And that cannot be done unless we are an active part of a local church body.  The question should not be, “what can the church do for me?”; but rather “what can I contribute to the church?”

The church has long since departed from the apostolic model.  During the Middle Ages it developed into an elaborate hierarchy supported by the state.  Worship became formal and ritualistic.  During the Reformation improvements were made, but they mainly involved taking existing state-sponsored institutional churches and “reforming” them.  The priest was replaced by the pastor whose chief function was to teach the congregation, but it was still largely a one-man ministry.  During times of revival, however, when there were real spiritual awakenings, small group interactions would often reappear – Sunday afternoon conferences, prayer bands and class meetings.  Where there is genuine spiritual life it must express itself, and express itself it did.

So what about today?  Where can one find a church like that? – one that is genuinely spiritual?  No church is perfect – we are all human and fall short of what God expects from us, and that includes churches as well as individuals.   The truly amazing thing about church history is that a God who is infinite, holy, all-wise and all-powerful would choose to use clay vessels like ourselves to accomplish His purposes on earth.  And so there is no such thing as a perfect church, but some are better than others.  Is the pastor a godly man?  Does he possess the biblical qualifications for an elder?  Are his sermons biblically sound?  Are they practical?  Does prayer play an important part in the life of the congregation?  Does the church exercise church discipline?

But more importantly, is there meaningful small group interaction?  This can take several forms, including small home group Bible studies, an active midweek prayer meeting, or adult Sunday School classes.

But the question is, do the believers actively work to build each other up spiritually?  Only then can the church accomplish what Christ intended for it.

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with

All your heart.”        (Jer. 29:13; cf. Dt. 4:29)

THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SEX

4.2.7

Anthony Van Dyck: Family Portrait

 

 

America, in recent decades, has seen a tremendous revolution in sexual mores, and this has placed the more conservative religious groups in an uncomfortable position.  Most younger people today have engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, and the Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage has made homosexual activity acceptable to much of society.  Now conservative churches are in the position of being labelled prudish, intolerant, and even “homophobic” and hateful.  What should churches do in such a situation?  Accept the sexual revolution as an accomplished fact?  Or remain faithful to the basic moral principles that have guided them for thousands of years?

In a situation like this it must never be forgotten that as human beings we are all ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and that it is our Creator who is the final arbiter of right and wrong.  And sex, like everything else in life, must be understood in terms of God’s creative purposes.

The opening chapters of Genesis describe what those purposes are.  “So God created man in His own image; in the image of “God He created him; male and female He created them.  Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:27,28; NKJV).  The implication here is that the world has a certain natural order to it, an order that placed there by our Creator.  Gender distinctions are a part of that order (“male and female He created them”), and the primary purpose of sex is procreation (“be fruitful and multiply”), and that presupposes a heterosexual relationship.

The next chapter in Genesis goes on specifically to describe the creation of woman.  “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper comparable to him’” (Gen. 2:18).  God then goes on to create Eve, and the passage describes the rationale behind marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In line with God’s creative purpose, then, there are a number of sexual practices that are condemned in the Bible.  The Old Testament condemns incest (Lev. 18:6-18), adultery (Lev. 18:20; Dt. 22:22), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22), bestiality (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 18:23) and cross dressing (Dt. 22:5).

Some have imagined that Jesus took a more tolerant view of such matters, but the opposite is true.  The Old Testament allowed for divorce, but Jesus condemned it (Matt. 19:1-12), and at one point actually went so far as to say “But I say to you that whoever looks as a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-30).  And so the apostle Paul could write “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (Eph. 5:3); and Heb. 13:4 tells us “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

Does this mean that Christians are being “hateful” and “intolerant” by upholding God’s standards of sexual conduct?  Not at all!  Marriage was created for our good, and it serves our best interests if done the way God intended it.  “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor or given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matt. 22:30); but in this life “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, / And obtains favor from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22).

What the biblical standards of morality do is to create a stable family life.  Children are brought into the world by parents who are in a permanent, binding relationship with each other.  The husband and wife naturally complement each other.  In a successful marriage there is real love and devotion towards each other and towards the children that spring from the union.

But what has the sexual revolution done for America?  One out of every two marriages ends in divorce, many children are born out of wedlock, and a large number of children are growing up in single parent families.  Poverty is pandemic, along with a hose of other social problems, and many of these problems can be traced directly back to the unstable family structure.

It all comes down to man’s fallen sinful nature.  There is a difference between lust and love.  Love sacrificially gives of itself to the other person; lust uses the other person for its own selfish ends.  Love builds relationships; lust destroys them.

Are Christians, then, being hateful and intolerant?  Not at all.  If we have a genuine concern for our neighbor’s well-being we will want to promote his best interests.  And sin is never in anyone’s best interest.  Would you buy a bottle of whiskey for an alcoholic?  Or even sell him a pack of cigarettes?   Why then would you help a pair of homosexuals sin by catering their wedding reception?  In each of these cases you would be contributing to the other person’s downfall and ruin.  That is not love.  That is being complicit with the crime, and no one’s genuine best interest is served that way.

Some may argue that the times have changed and that the church must change with the times – that we cannot live in the past.  But as we said before we must never forget that we are ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and that He never changes.  In the end His opinion is the only one that matters.