Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: March, 2020

THE PRAYER FOR CHURCH UNITY – I

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In the midst of all the trials and difficulties Christians experience in a hostile world, Christ’s plea for His disciples is that they would be one.  He prays, “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11; NKJV).  He comes back to this theme a little later in His prayer.  “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (vv. 20,21).

First of all, it should be noted that Jesus makes a distinction between believers and unbelievers, and He makes it clear that He is not praying here for unbelievers.  He prays “for those who will believe in Me.”  The phrase translated “believe in” is used throughout the Gospel of John to refer to personal faith in Christ.  What He is praying for here is the unity of a fellowship of believers – not a state church or a church with liberal theology.  And Jesus made it clear in verse 9 that “I pray for them.  I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.”  He draws a sharp distinction between the world and true believers.  He is praying for the unity of genuine born-again Christians, not a mixed body of converted and unconverted church members.  It is a believers’ church that is in view here.

On the other hand Jesus makes it plain that He is praying for all genuinely born again Christians.  “I do not pray for these alone [i.e., His immediate disciples], but also for those who will believer in Me through their word” (v. 20).  His concern is not just for one particular denomination or sect, but for the universal church as a whole – all who genuinely believe in Him in every age.

Jesus describes the nature of church unity this way: “as You, Father, are in me, and I in You; that they also may be one in us” (v. 21).  “I in them, and You in Me, that they may be perfect in one” (v. 23).  There is a certain amount of mystery here, the nature of the Godhead and the manner in which the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father.  But it does point to what theologians call the mystical union of believers in Christ.  If we have been born again we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts; and this connects us mystically to Jesus Christ and to each other.  All true believers have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  We are all members of the body of Christ, regardless of our particular denominational affiliation.  We all share a common connection to Christ.  He is the head of the one universal church of which we are all members.  Thus every truly born-again Christian is a brother or sister in Christ.

It is for this church, this universal church, that Jesus prays “that they all may be one . . .” (vv. 21-23).  He prays that they might be one, not many.

Here we see the great scandal of modern American church life.  We are a nation made up of ethnic groups from every corner of the globe.  We enjoy the freedom of religion, the separation of church and state.  Unfortunately that has resulted in an incredible array of denominations.   There are at least six or sever conservative Presbyterian groups alone, each claiming to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Much to our shame we have come to accept this as normal.  Churches feel free to define themselves any way they wish, often putting highly debatable doctrines in their statements of faith, and then requiring their candidates for membership to subscribe to the statement of faith in full.  Individual Christians simply shop around and choose whatever church they wish to join, sometimes changing membership repeatedly from church to church.

Some of the more conservative or “Fundamentalist” churches practice what is called “Second Degree Separation.”  “First Degree Separation,” separation from unbelievers, is biblical.  Evangelical Christians should not be part of liberal, mainline denominations that deny the cardinal doctrines of the faith.  That would be tacitly recognizing unbelievers as brothers and sisters in Christ.  But “Second Degree Separation,” separation from fellow Evangelical Christians over secondary points of doctrine, is problematic.  If we are to take Jesus’ words in this prayer seriously, we should all be working for the visible unity of the church.

GOD AND THE CORONAVIRUS

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4.2.7

Pieter Claesz, A Vanitas Still Life, 1645

 

The current coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, dramatically, how fragile life can be.  Within a matter of weeks, and even days, our lives have been turned upside down; and now we wait, not sure what to expect, but bracing for the worst.  Nearly everyone will be put to an inconvenience.  Many will get sick, and some will die.  Events have been cancelled and plans have been disrupted.  How will it all end?

There is a sense in which none of this is new – it is a part of the human condition.  Just ask the survivors of the Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages.  And the frailty of human life is reflected in many of the psalms in the Bible.

One such psalm is Psalm 33.  The human author is unknown, but the psalm is found in the early part of the psalter that contains many of the psalms of David..  The psalm begins, appropriately, with a call to worship:

“Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous!

For praise from the upright is beautiful.

Praise the Lord with the harp;

Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.”

(Psalm 33:1,2; NKJV)

Praise is the proper and fitting response to all that God is and has done, as the psalmist will go on to demonstrate.

The psalmist describes God’s character as one of “righteousness and justice,” and says that “The earth is full of the presence of the Lord” (v. 5).  Even natural disasters do not detract from the fact that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  There is evidence of Intelligent Design everywhere.

The psalmist points to the enormous power of God demonstrated in creation.

“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,

And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth . . .

For He spoke, and it was done;

He commanded, and it stood fast.”

(vv. 6,9).

\Contemplate for a moment the sheer immensity of the universe, the distant stars and galaxies millions of light years away, and then realize that all this came into being by the mere spoken word of God!  How amazing beyond all comprehension!  “Let all the earth fear the Lord, / Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him” (v. 8).

But if God is the all-powerful Creator, it stands to reason that He exercised absolute control over what He has created.  And this means, in turn, that He can override the counsels of men.  “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; / He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect’ (v. 10).  Think of what has just happened in our lives.  A tiny microbe appeared in a distant city in central China, and within just a matter of a few months entire countries on the other side of the globe were shut down and the financial markets are in upheaval.  The most that the healthcare officials can do is to try to slow down the rate of infection; they are powerless to stop it completely.  And all of this because of an invading army equipped with tanks, planes, missiles and bombs?  No!  Because of a microscopic bug!  How fragile life is!  And yet God, the Creator and Lord of the universe, is in control of it all.  “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, / The plans of His heart to all generations” (v. 11).

The psalmist points out that God is perfectly aware of all that is going on down here:

“The Lord looks down from heaven;

He sees all the sons of men . . .

He fashions their hearts individually;

He considers all their works.”

(vv. 13,15)

What this suggests is that what is happening now did not happen by accident – God is perfectly aware of what is going on, and is controlling its course and determining its outcome.  It is all a part of His eternal plan.

The psalmist then makes a telling observation:

“No king is saved by the multitude of an army;

A mighty man is not delivered by great strength.’

A horse is a vain hope for safety;

Neither shall it deliver any by its great strength.”

(vv. 16,17).

An army, one’s own physical strength, and a horse are all things on which we are naturally inclined to rely.  But all of them, by their very nature, are finite.  There always exists the possibility that they will be overwhelmed by an even greater force.  And since God is infinite, He can easily overcome any of them.  As we have seen in the current crisis, there are even forces in nature that can overwhelm a government.  But God is greater than all of these.  God is ultimately in control.  In God we should place our trust.

And so the psalmist tells us that “the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him . . .to deliver their soul from death . . .” (vv. 18,19).  This in itself is remarkable.  Why would the infinite Creator and Lord of heaven and earth pay any attention to any of us finite creatures of the dust?  The answer is that it is precisely because He is infinite that He is aware of everything.  “The Lord looks from heaven; / He sees all the sons of men” (v. 13).  That being the case, He takes a personal interest in “those who fear Him, / On those who hope in His mercy” (v. 18).  To “fear” God does not mean to live to live in constant terror of Him.  God is good – He is kind and gracious.  To “fear” Him means to have such a deep reverence for His power and authority that one would dread to offend Him in any way.  It means to approach Him in deep and humble reverence.

To “hope” in God means to have a confident expectation which will then demonstrate itself in patient waiting.  “Mercy” might better be translated “lovingkindness” (NASV).  It is the kindness of God “in condescending to the needs of his creatures” (Brown-Driver-Briggs).  The key to weathering the storms of life is to put our trust in God’s unfailing goodness.  But that requires faith.

Thus the psalmist concludes by saying:

“Our soul waits for the Lord;

He is our help and our shield.

For our heart shall rejoice in Him,

Because we have trusted in His holy name.”

(vv. 20,21).

We put our trust in Him.  We rely on Him to get us through life’s trials and difficulties.  And as a result we patiently wait on Him; and we do more than that – we “rejoice in Him” – our heart is filled with joy and gratitude precisely because we have the confidence that He will come and deliver us.

The psalmist finally concludes with a prayer: “Let Your mercy, O Lord, be upon us, / Just as we hope in You” (v. 22); His “mercy” again being His lovingkindness.

The question, then, is how firm is our faith in God?  Do we have the confidence that He will deliver us from all our trials and difficulties?  In a situation like the one in which we now find ourselves it may seem difficult.  The whole world seems in chaos – the things upon which we have always relied my no longer be there for us.  But if our faith is real and genuine, if God has a real presence in our lives, we will go to Him in prayer, confess our fear and anxiety, and wait for “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” to “guard you hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

 

THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD

 

Jesus has begun His last great intercessory prayer for His disciples, and He quickly turns His attention to their position in the world.  He prays, “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world.  They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word” (John 17:6; NKJV).

The disciples, as we have already noted, were chosen by God the Father and given to Christ the Son.  But they were given to Christ “out of the world.”  The “world” is the fallen human race in general – human civilization as we know it – sinful and corrupt.  The disciples, then, were chosen from “out of the world” – they were no longer a part of the world, the surrounding human society.  They no longer marched to the world’s drumbeat.

Of these, Jesus says, “I have manifested Your name” to them.  “For I have given to them the words which You have given Me . . .” (v. 8).  The “words” (ta hremata) are the actual spoken words.  The Father gave these words to the Son, and the Son gave them to the disciples.  This is critical.  Christianity is a revealed religion – it is based on facts and information that can only be known through the writings of the prophets and apostles.  All of this is denied by large segments of the modern professing church (liberal theology), but Jesus clearly claimed it.  It is absolutely critical.  Apart from divine revelation Christianity has no more claim to be true than any other religion, and Jesus would have been a madman to have claimed otherwise.

And then Jesus says, “they have kept Your word” (v. 6); and in particular “they have believed that You sent Me” (v. 8).  In other words, what marked the disciples was their doctrinal orthodoxy – they “kept Your word.”  The “word” here is the logos, the doctrinal content of the revelation.  And they “kept” it – they were careful to observe it and obey it.  And in particular it involved believing something about the Person of Christ – that He had been sent by the Father.  (It must be kept in mind that John had a specific apologetic purpose in recording this – that the Jesus who spoke these words was the eternal Son of God).

Jesus then prays for them.  His concern here in particular is their position in the world.  He Himself is about to depart from the world, but they will remain in it.  And this points to the position that all Christians are in as we try to relate to the surrounding human society.  “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You” (v. 11a).  Jesus was conscious of the fact that He was about to be reunited with His Father in heaven.  But He was also conscious that His disciples would be left behind here on earth: “ . . .they are in the world” – to face the trials and difficulties, the hostility and opposition that a Christian meets when he tries to live a godly life in a fallen, sinful world.

Jesus says, “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (v. 14).  “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (v. 16).  Jesus had given His disciples the “word” (logon) of God, the word logos here referring to the truth of God as it has been revealed to man.  Again, Christianity is a revealed religion; it is based on a revelation from God.  And as the very Son of God Jesus was in a better position than any merely human prophet to know exactly what God the Father thinks and wants, and that is what He has revealed to us.

But this revelation has the effect of creating a division within human society – a division between those who accept this revelation and those who do not.  Those who have received this revelation now see life in an entirely different light; they can no longer accept the false values of the world or conform to its standards.  The hostility of the world is the result.

But Jesus also says, “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (v. 18).  The world translated “sent” is a form of the verb apostello, from which we get the noun apostolos or “apostle,” a “sent out” one.  It implies someone who has been sent on an official or authoritative mission.  The primary reference here is undoubtedly to the apostles, but there is an application to the church as well. We are not called merely to exist in the world; we have been sent out by God into the world on a mission.  In one sense, then, all believers are “apostles”; we all represent Christ in the world and have been sent by Him to proclaim the gospel to the world.  And Jesus draws an analogy between our mission and His own.  “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”    He was the sinless, holy Son of God, who spent three years in this sin-cursed world, and was finally crucified. If we have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit we are in somewhat of the same position.  We have been called to live godly lives and to preach the gospel, and we meet the world’s hostility as a result.  We are walking in Christ’s footsteps.

How, then, can believers function under such circumstances?  Jesus says, “Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as we are” (v. 11b).  We are not left to struggle on our own.  We would be unequal to the task if we were.  But Jesus “kept” His disciples while He was here on earth (v. 12), and now He asks the Father to continue that protection.  It points to the eternal security of genuine believers.

Jesus specifically says, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (v. 15); the “evil one” being Satan.  God loves us; He protects us.  But that does not mean our physical removal from the world, but rather that we should be protected from the evil forces that are at work in the world.  We must still face hardship and difficulty, like anyone else.  We will also face opposition.  We might even be called upon to face a martyr’s death.  But in it all God will be with us, will protect us, and will strengthen us inwardly until it is time to call us home.

What all of this means for us practically is that as Christians we are not a part of the surrounding society.  We are live lives of non-conformity to the world.  We should care about our neighbors and our country; we should work to improve the quality of life in our communities and alleviate hardship and suffering wherever we can.  Christian love demands no less.  But we must not share the world’s values.  We must approach the mass media skeptically, maintain business integrity at all times, and beware of aligning ourselves too closely with any one political party.  And above all else we must recognize that mankind’s deepest problem is its sin, and that Christ is the only answer.  Let us ever be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ.

GOD’S ETERNAL PLAN OF REDEMPTION

 

Jesus’ teaching ministry had come to an end, at least until after the Resurrection.  He is on the verge of being arrested, and before the day would be over He would be executed on a cross and buried in a tomb.  And yet the last thing He does before this momentous event was to pray for the disciples He was about to leave, and by extension for the whole body of believers who would come to faith in Him through their testimony.  It was a remarkable testimony to the love that Christ had for His disciples that He would be praying for them on the morning of His execution.

The prayer has deep significance for us as believers, because it expresses what Christ desires for us.  In effect it sets the priorities for the church, and our aim in life is to become what He wanted us to become.  His prayer, in effect, is the roadmap for our journey to heaven.

It is significant that Jesus begins by placing the life of the church in the context of God’s eternal plan of redemption.  Jesus is about to pray for the church – but why should the Father hear Him and grant the requests?  The answer is that it is ultimately all a part of God’s plan for the church, and a critical part of that plan was what Jesus was about to do on the cross.

“Father, the hour has come.  Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him” (John 17:1,2; NKJV).  We note here at the very beginning that God the Father has given the Son “authority over all flesh.”  By coming down to earth and taking on human flesh, becoming both God and man at the same time, and then dying on behalf of mankind, Jesus became the representative Head of the human race (cf. Phil. 2:5-11).  This means, then, that all of us as human beings are subject to His authority.

As a part of that authority God the Father has given the Son certain individuals who would be saved: “that He should give eternal life to as many as you have given Him.”  There is a specific group of individuals whom the Father has given to the Son, and they are the ones who become the recipients of salvation (cf. John 6:36-40, 44, 45, 65).

“And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (v. 3).  We sometimes think of salvation as the forgiveness of sins, and that is certainly part of it.  But salvation is also much more than that.  It is life, and the life consists of knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son.  It is being alive to eternal reality, and knowing God in a personal way.  The great tragedy of human existence is that the vast majority of human beings are spiritually dead – they have no sense of God at all apart from maybe a bare, abstract idea.  But salvation brings about a spiritual awakening and makes us alive to the presence of God.  The world looks entirely different now.

Jesus then goes on to reflect on His own personal role in the plan of redemption.  “I have glorified You on earth.  I have finished the work You have given Me to do.   And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory I had with You before the world was” (vv. 4,5).  Jesus, of course, was very conscious of being the eternal Son of God, and of having been sent by the Father on a special mission to the world.  For three years He had preached and performed miracles.  He had now arrived at the climactic point of His earthly mission, His death on the cross.  It was a terrifying prospect indeed.  But was it worth it?  What could He possibly gain by going through with this?  The human race was in bondage to sin.  It deserved an eternity in hell.  And yet God chose to send His Son into the world to die for our sins.  What a testimony to His mercy and grace!  And by raising Jesus from the dead He showed that Jesus had accomplished the desired objective – His mission was a success!

Many people in our modern, secular world have difficulty finding meaning and purpose in life.  We go through life, pursuing our own individual narrow self-interest.  But in the end that is likely to leave us empty.  As human beings we want to be valued; we want to feel that we have accomplished something worthwhile.  But once we remove God from the picture our life becomes meaningless: we serve no useful purpose here on earth.

God is our Creator, and He created us for a purpose.  And the remarkable thing is that even in our fallen, sinful condition, God chose to save at least some of us, and at the appointed time in history He sent His Son into the world to atone for our sin.  What happened on the cross was the turning point in history.  And we who know Christ are the beneficiaries of this unparalleled act of grace and mercy.  May we devote our lives to the One who purchased our redemption at so great a price!