Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

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GOD’S GOODNESS

 

 

We have seen, then, that God is the all-powerful Creator and sovereign Lord of the universe.  But what kind of king is He – good or bad?  Is He a benevolent ruler, or a cruel tyrant?  What is it like to have a relationship with Him personally?  Is it even possible to have a relationship with Him?  In short, what is His character like?

Moses, in the Old Testament, found out in a particularly dramatic episode recorded in Exodus chapters 33 and 34.  Moses had led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and they had arrived at Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments.  But no sooner had Moses received the Commandments then the Israelites turned to idolatry and thereby provoked God to anger, threatening to destroy the venture before it had hardly begun.  Moses interceded and God relented.  But this raised the question about what to do going forward.  God said that He would send His “angel” to guide and direct them, but that God himself would no longer be present with them.

Moses, then, was faced with the crushing burden of leading the nation almost by himself.  Moses once again interceded and pled for God’s presence.  And then Moses made this extraordinary request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex. 33:18; NKJV).  God granted the request, and arranged to reveal Himself to Moses on top of the mountain.  On the appointed day Moses stood on the mountain, the Lord descended, “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation’” (Ex. 34:6,7).  It was a definitive revelation of God’s own character.

So what is God like?  The word translated “merciful” (Heb. rachum – “compassionate” – NASV) basically involves a sense of tender compassion, especially towards those in weakness or distress.  The classic description is found in Psalm 103:13:

“As a father pities his children,

So the Lord pities those who fear Him.”

(The word translated “pities” comes from the same Hebrew root as rachum).

It is the very helplessness of the child that motivates the father to help him.  He does so because he has a natural sympathy and compassion for his own offspring.  So too, when God sees His spiritual offspring in need He is moved with compassion.

Then the passage says that God is “gracious,” which stems from the idea of showing favor to someone with an open-handed generosity.  If anyone suffers need and cries out to God, God says, “I will hear, for I am gracious” (Ex. 22:27), and “The Lord will give grace and glory; / No good thing will He withhold / From those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11).

The text goes on to say that God is “longsuffering,” or “slow to anger,” as it might also be translated (NASV, ESV, NIV).  The text does not say that God is never angry, but that He is “slow to anger.”

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.

He will not always strive with us,

Nor will He keep His anger forever.

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,

Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”

(Ps. 103:8-10)

While God may be justly angry with us, He does not give us the full punishment that we deserve.

Then the text says that God is “abounding in goodness and truth.”  The word translated “goodness” (Heb. chesed) is often translated “mercy” or “lovingkindness.”  It points to a disposition on God’s part to respond to the needs of His creatures.  It would include the care that He exercises over His creation in designing things in such a way that they function together harmoniously – “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5b).  It is also seen in His willingness to rescue those in distress:

“Nevertheless He regarded their affliction,

When He heard their cry;

And for their sake He remembered His covenant,

And relented according to the multitude of His mercies.”

(Ps. 106:45).

And then the text says that God is full of “truth,” or “faithfulness” as the word might also be translated.  The word implies consistency or reliability.

“The works of His hands are verity and justice;

All His mercies are sure.

They stand forever and ever,

And are done in truth and uprightness.”

(Ps. 111:7,8).

Interestingly these last two terms are often combined together to form a single phrase, as they are in our text: “and abounding in goodness and truth” (Ex. 34:6), or as it might be translated, “and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (ESV).  And yet the two terms are not exactly synonymous, but rather complement each other, as in Psalm 85:10:

“Mercy and truth have met together;

Righteousness and peace have kissed.”

“Mercy” or “lovingkindness” is a kind regard for the individual.  “Truth” or “faithfulness” is a devotion to principle – God always does what is right and what He promised to do.

In the New Testament these ideas are combined to form the concept of “love,” and the Geek word agape is often used for this distinctively Christian type of love.  “God is love” we are told in Scripture (I John 4:16).  “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.  In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:9,10).  The love of God is self-sacrificing and directed toward the undeserving.

The practical implications of this are far-reaching.  We do not live in an impersonal, amoral universe ruled by the law of the jungle.  We are creatures of an all-wise and benevolent God and are accountable to Him for the way we live our lives.  And He, in turn, is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.”  That means that in the hour of trial we can look to Him for help.

“I will cry to God Most High,

To God who performs all things for me.

He shall send from heaven and save me;

He reproaches the one who would swallow me up.   Selah.

God shall send forth His mercy and His truth.”

(Ps. 57:2,3)

We still live in a sin-cursed world, filled with pain and sorrow.  Yet God can bring us safely through.

But if God is love, if mercy and compassion are a part of His essential character, then it follows that this is what He expects from us as well.

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justly,

To love mercy,

And to walk humbly with your God?”

(Micah 6:8)

Do we “love mercy”?  Our natural tendency as fallen human beings is to be self-centered and to take advantage of each other.  But God wants us to be genuinely concerned about others – our family members, our neighbors, our fellow-workers, and the customers with whom we come in contact.  That means that we will never want to insult them, or offend them, much less lie to them or cheat them.  Rather we should be generous and kind toward all, always ready to help them in times of need.  Because that is the way God is Himself, and that is what He expects of us.

 

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THE LEGACY OF MARX

Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German poli

Karl Marx

 

 

This past Saturday, May 5, saw the bicentennial of the birth of Karl Marx, arguably the most influential philosopher in modern history.  What made him so influential was that he was not your typical armchair philosopher – delivering dry lectures in some ivory tower somewhere.  Instead he laid out a political agenda that ultimately affected the lives of millions of people worldwide.

Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels laid out their agenda in the Communist Manifesto, published in London on the eve of the revolution of 1848.  In it they described in vivid detail the rapacious effects of free-market capitalism as it developed during the Industrial Revolution, leaving a large segment of the population socially uprooted and economically impoverished, at the mercy of wealthy industrialists.  (In describing the conditions of the working class they could easily have been describing how many of the supporters of Donald Trump feel today.)  What Marx and Engels claimed was happening was a class struggle that would eventually result in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the triumph of the proletariat and the abolition of private property.

Some of the things advocated by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto have become widely accepted today in modern, industrialized countries: a progressive income tax, central banks, and public education.  But other things are more troubling: the abolition of property in land and the establishment of “industrial armies, especially in agriculture.”  At one point they called for the abolition of “the bourgeois family.”  And all of this, according to them, will come about by means of violent revolution.  Between the classes, they say, is a “veiled civil war” until “that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”  The Manifesto concludes with a ringing call to arms: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.  They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.  Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.  The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.”

What is remarkable about the Manifesto is the absence of any call for social justice, let alone an appeal to morality.  Rather what underlies the authors’ call for revolution is a sense of economic determinism.  Revolution is inevitable because history is a perpetual class struggle.  “What the bourgeoisie therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.  Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”

This, in turn, leads to a cultural relativism.  The only reason we hold to certain beliefs is because we are economically conditioned to do so.  To their “bourgeois” critics Marx and Engels say “Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into law for all, a will, whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of your class.”  “The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property . . . this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.”  Thus, for the proletarian, “Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”

Marx and Engels may have thought that they had found the cure for every human ill, but in their case the medicine was worse than the disease.  The violent overthrow of governments and forced collectivization of property did not yield the promised blessings.  Instead we had dysfunctional economies which led to chronic shortages and, on occasion, mass starvation.  Some modern apologists for Marx have tried to exonerate him by arguing that the Communist dictators of the 20th Century had misinterpreted his writings.  But to read the Communist Manifesto it becomes evident that Lenin and Stalin, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot, were simply following the agenda that had been laid out for them by Marx himself.  And Marx’s sad legacy still lives on.  Practically no one believes in dialectical materialism, but Marx’s attack on “bourgeois morality” still lives on in the identity politics of today.

The underlying problem was Marx’s philosophical materialism.  It has the effect of at once eliminating the existence of God and dehumanizing man, making him little more than a creature of prevailing economic conditions.  There is a denial of universal truths and moral absolutes.  The end result is the collapse of Western Civilization itself.  All that is left is the law of the jungle.

The Christian answer to all of this is that God does, in fact, exist.  We live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being.  Truth and morality are determined by Him and revealed through His Word.  We were created in His image, we have the ability to differentiate between right and wrong, and will ultimately have to give an account to God, our Creator and Judge.  And yes, capitalism can be a rapacious and oppressive economic system, creating a huge disparity of wealth between the privileged few and the disadvantaged many.  But the underlying problem is man’s sin and rebellion against God; and economic oppression is just one form of human depravity.  And the answer to the problem is not armed revolution, which simply replaces one oppressive regime with another.  It is repentance toward God and the new birth, through the preaching of the gospel.

Getting rid of morality is not the answer to economic oppression.  It is coming to terms with the will of our Creator.

“For He is coming to judge the earth.

With righteousness He shall judge the world,

And the peoples with equity.”

(Psalm 98:9; NKJV)

PAUL THE CALVINIST; PAUL THE ANABAPTIST

 

One of the great scandals of the modern church, at least in America, is the sectarian rivalries that divide it.  The church is divided into warring camps, each taking great pains to disavow the theology of the others.  Lutheranism, Anglicanism, the Reformed Faith, Anabaptism, Dispensationalism and Pentecostalism are all seen as distinct species of religion, with barely anything in common.  Even the variety of Restoriationist movements (Plymouth Brethren, Church of Christ) display an extreme sectarian mentality.

And so it is that advocates of “the Reformed Faith” and the “Anabaptist Heritage” often eye each other with the deepest suspicion.  The one is thoroughly Calvinistic in theology; the other just as thoroughly Arminian.  Could both groups possibly be reading the same Bible?

They might both be surprised at what the Bible actually says.  For example, when we look at the writings of Paul in particular and try to describe him in modern terms, we find that he was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist” at the same time.

john_calvin_by_holbein

John Calvin

Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  In the first half of the epistle Paul characteristically discusses doctrine; in the second, practice.  The one flows from the other.  There is no such thing as theology without practical implications; and there is no such thing as a Christian lifestyle that is not rooted in a Christian worldview.  The two go hand-in-hand.  And in Paul’s case the theology is thoroughly “Calvinistic,” if we can impose such an anachronistic term on a first century apostle.  He begins in Chapter One, verses 3-14 with a breathtaking overview of the plan of redemption, ascribing everything to God’s grace.  He mentions election and predestination, and repeatedly stressed that salvation was “according to the good pleasure of His will” (vv. 5,9; NKJV), and “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (vv. 6,12,14).  He then prays that the Ephesian believers will come to understand the greatness of God’s power toward them (1:19,20).

In Chapter Two he goes on to describe human depravity (2:1-3) and salvation by grace through faith (2:8-10).  He then goes on in Chapter Three to ascribe all to God’s eternal plan, which Paul describes as a mystery which has now been revealed.  He finally concludes the doctrinal section of the book with a benediction (3:20,21) in which he exalts the power of God and gives all glory to Him.  Thus the first half of the epistle is a veritable wellspring of Reformed theology.

mennosimons

Menno Simons

But in the second half of the epistle one would have thought that Paul had changed denominations.  He describes the church as a community of believers united to each other by a spiritual bond (4:1-16).  This, in turn, requires a life lived in non-conformity to the world (4:17-24), and the practice of brotherly love (4:2,3; 4:29-5:2).  It is, in fact, a thoroughly Anabaptist view of the church and the Christian life.

Significantly Paul begins the practical section of the epistle with the word “therefore.” The word signifies that what follows is the logical conclusion to what went before.  This means that the Anabaptist ethics that Paul described in the second half of the book follows logically from the Calvinistic theology of the first half.  Paul sums up his argument in 4:1: “I, therefore . ..beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”  The “calling” is the plan of redemption described in Chapters 1-3.  It is effectual calling, a calling which has the actual effect of drawing the sinner to Christ.  The gist of Paul’s argument is that the “calling” should result in the kind of changed life that he describes in Chapters 4-6.

And the one does logically flow from the other.  If the lost are totally depraved and in bondage to sin, and if the saved have been inwardly renewed by irresistible grace, the saved will live differently from the lost.  Salvation is a change which makes a real difference, and it is a change which results from something that God has done inside of us.  It is the result of God’s grace and power.

Paul was consistent with himself; his modern interpreters are not.  Today we tend to think of Calvinism and Anabaptism as two separate and distinct belief systems, mutually opposed to each other.  But this is largely because of the conflicts that arose during the Reformation.  But in the context of the First Century church they were not.  They are merely two different sides of the same New Testament Christianity.

The problem with Luther and Calvin is that, while they recovered the doctrine of justification by faith, they did so in the context of state churches.  What they could not see was that if we are justified by faith, then we must have faith in order to be saved.  Only believers are true Christians.  But if this is true then only a church which is made up of believers can function like a true Christian church.  The state cannot make someone a Christian; only the Holy Spirit can.  By trying to reform state churches Luther and Calvin missed the clear implications of their own theology.  On the doctrine of justification they were biblical and evangelical.  On their doctrine of the church they were medieval.

The problem with the Anabaptists is that they had a natural tendency to react against the magisterial Reformers who were persecuting them, and thus we have the divisions that are typical today.  But no such division existed in the First Century.  It was all one and the same Christianity.  Paul was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist”!

GOD’S JUSTICE

 

 

Abraham once asked God the pointed question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25; NKJV).  And indeed that is the central question of human existence.  God is indeed “the King of all the earth,” and He “reigns over the nations, / God sits on His holy throne” (Ps. 47:7,8).  Why, then, is there sin and evil in the world?

The immediate answer to the question, of course, is that we human beings are the ones who are doing the sinning.  So the real question should be, why do we sin?  Why do we do things that we ourselves believe to be wrong?  It is the human race that is fallen and corrupt, not God.  We are the direct cause of our own misery.  But as for God, “the Lord is righteous, / He loves righteousness . . .” (Ps. 11:7).

But if God is “a great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2), why does He not prevent evil?  Can He not stop it?  And if He can, why does He not?  The answer is that there is, in fact, a partial justice now, but there will be a final justice later.

First of all, we can see partial justice now.  David could say,

“For You have maintained my right and my cause;

You sat on the throne judging in righteousness.

You have rebuked the nations,

You have destroyed the wicked;

You have blotted out their name forever and ever.”

(Ps. 9:4,5)

Where are the Assyrian and Babylonian empires today?  Where is the Roman Empire?  Where is Hitler’s Third Reich?  They are all in the ashbin of history, brought to their inevitable ruin by their own decadence and recklessness.  In the end their wickedness destroyed them.

But even on a smaller scale we can see justice being carried out.  In God’s common grace the civil magistrate is “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:1-4).  When civil government works the way it is supposed to, law and order is maintained, criminals are punished, and neighborhoods are kept safe.

But even on a more personal level God works in the life of an individual believer to protect him, provide for him, and lead him along.  “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  This can be a hard thing at times for a believer to understand.  We certainly are not kept from trials and difficulties in this life.  But the verse does not say that “all things are good,” but rather that “all things work together for good.” By themselves many of the things that happen to us are bad: sickness, injury, joblessness, etc.   But God can use the bad things that happen to us for the ultimate good.  Even if we, as Christians, are called upon to suffer martyrdom, it advances God’s kingdom and promotes His glory, and we will receive a reward in the age to come.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith,” as the saying goes.  And thus David could say,

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

All the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

Forever.”

(Ps. 23:6)

But it takes faith to believe that when we are in “the valley of the shadow of death” (v. 4).

But God’s perfect, final justice will be revealed at the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment.  The apostle Paul describes “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will ‘render to each one according to his deeds’” (Rom. 2:5,6)  God has appointed a day, sometime in the future, when everyone outside of Christ will get exactly what he deserves – “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, to every soul of man who does evil . . .” (vv. 8,9).

But there is a delay in God’s justice until history runs its course; first of all, to give everyone the opportunity to repent and believe – “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ (II Peter 3:9); and secondly, to make sure that the wicked really do deserve the punishment they will receive – “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5).

But this all raises an even more difficult and disturbing question: if God is just and punishes sin, what hope is there for us? – for we are all sinners.  The answer is not what some would imagine it to be – that God simply forgets and overlooks sin.  The sin is real and the guilt is real.  So rather than simply overlook sin, what God has done is to arrange to make an atonement for sin.  We have redemption through Christ Jesus, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood . . . to demonstrate at this time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26).  A “propitiation” (Greek hilasterion) is an atoning sacrifice that turns away the wrath of an offended Deity.  By sending forth His Son as a propitiation God can effectively punish sin and forgive it at the same time.  Thus His justice is upheld while He shows mercy to those who repent of their sins and believe on Christ.

The prospect of divine judgment is both sobering and comforting at the same time – sobering, because “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31); but comforting because we can know that evil will not ultimately prevail, and that righteousness will finally triumph.  We do not live in an amoral, unjust universe, where crime pays and “nice guys finish last.”

Seeing, then, that God is just, and will judge the world, how careful we should be to live righteous lives that please Him!  And if we do not know Christ as our Savior, how quick we should be to flee to Him for salvation!

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).

WHY CHURCH?

dscn0949

 

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.

MAN’S REVOLT AGAINST GOD

4.2.7

Caravagio: The Young Bacchus

The Bible tells us that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18; NKJV).  But why would God be angry with us?  He knows that we are only human, right?  God is a loving Father; surely He can overlook our weaknesses and failures.

What the verse goes on to say is that the wrath of God “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .”  The Greek word translated “ungodliness” might better be rendered “impiety.”  It denotes the lack of reverence and devotion to God.  “Unrighteousness” is the lack of conformity to God’s law.  And that, according to Scripture, is why God is angry with us.

But why?  As long as we mind our own business and do not harm others, what is the problem?

As we have seen, God is our Creator and Lord, and He expects us to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him (Mic. 6:8).  What happens in actual practice, however, falls far short of the mark.  We routinely ignore God in our lives.  Yes, we may pay lip service to God, or to some duty, but our “religion” amounts to little more than a mere formality.  We rarely pray; we rarely read the Bible.  Our decisions are mainly based on calculated self-interest.  We assert our independence, and then look for ways to rationalize our behavior.  Scientists and philosophers try to devise elaborate alternative explanations of reality.  The rest of us just fill our lives with money, pleasure or entertainment.  And when circumstances overwhelm us we turn to the psychiatrist or the bottle.  We will try anything and everything except turn to God.  And inwardly we resent the thought of God having any kind of authority over us.  This is what the Bible means by “ungodliness” or “impiety.”  It is the near total absence of God in our thinking.  We call it “secularism.”

And then we are guilty of “unrighteousness.”  We pursue our own individual self-interest, and it often comes at the expense of others.  We try to convince ourselves that we are not really hurting anyone else, but our actions often belie our words.  As a society we will created governments and pass laws; but as individuals we will look for ways to game the system.  We lie and we cheat.  We gossip.  We lose our tempers and seek revenge.  We are motivated by greed and ignore the suffering of others.  We eat too much; we drink too much; we lust after women.  We hurt each other through a thousand tiny cuts.  We know that all of this is wrong, and yet we do it anyway.  This is what the Bible means by “unrighteousness.”

But, you may ask, what about the many people who have made personal sacrifices for their fellow man?  What about Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King?  What about those who have given their lives on the battlefield or those who have devoted their lives to the care of the sick and the poor?  Aren’t they good people?  Aren’t their deeds noble and virtuous?

Yes, indeed, there have been many people who have done great things.  But in the sight of God they are often doing the right things for the wrong reasons.  Most people are guided by a kind of social morality.  They have been raised and educated in a certain culture, and the society in which they live expects them to act a certain way.  There are rewards and punishments.   If you do the wrong thing you could go to jail; if you do the right thing you might achieve recognition from your fellow man.  But the morality of a society is often determined by the social, economic and political needs of that society, and as a result sometime comes into conflict with God’s moral law.  America’s economic system is based on individual self-interest and the profit motive.  The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Tim. 6:10).

Thus the behavior of individuals within a given society is motivated by a desire for social acceptance, and this often involves an element of hypocrisy.  We maintain a public persona that we project to others, but inwardly we can be quite different.  The true inner self can be stubborn, proud or resentful.

But all of this is quite different from what God requires.  What He wants is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (Dt. 6:4; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:35-40).  We look at the outward appearance; God looks on the heart.  He discovers the hidden motive.  And “rational self-interest” is still self-interest.  Civilization is too often an attempt to better our lives without God.

In short, it is the underlying motive that counts.  What motivates us to do good things?  Is it a genuine love for God and for our fellow man?  Or is it a desire for esteem and success?  And what do we do when society’s standards conflict with God’s.

In other words, when God looks down from His throne in heaven, what He sees is not a bunch of basically good people trying their best to do the right thing.  What He sees is a human race that stubbornly refuses to recognize Him as Creator and Lord, routinely ignores Him in daily life, and breaks His commandments when it is convenient to do so.  He sees people who hurt each other in ways large and small.  And that is why God is justly angry with us.

BLESS THE LORD, O MY SOUL

 

 

Thanksgiving has been observed as a national holiday ever since November, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation to “invite my fellow citizens” to observe the day “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”  Most modern secularists today would recoil at the idea of a national Day of Thanksgiving if it meant actually giving thanks “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens,” and most people have turned the holiday into anything but the giving of thanks; which, of course, has the effect of robbing the occasion of its original meaning and purpose.

But the question remains, why give thanks to God in the first place?  What do we owe to God?  Did we not get where we are by dint of our own effort?  Psalm 103 in the Bible gives the explanation.

The psalm, ascribed by ancient tradition to David, begins with an exhortation of the psalmist to himself:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul;

And all that is within me, bless His holy name!”

(v. 1; NKJV).

Why?   Because God is the One “who forgives all your iniquities” (v. 3a).  The psalmist begins by reflecting on the fact that he himself is a sinner, that he does not deserve any blessings form God; indeed, he deserves to be punished instead.  But as undeserving as he is, God has blessed him anyway, forgiving David’s sins.

But that is not all.  The psalmist goes on.

“Who heals all your diseases,

Who redeems your life from destruction . . .”

(vv. 3b,4a)

The psalmist had evidently lived long; he had endured many harrowing circumstances.  Many of these were beyond his control.  Yet he managed to survive them all.  And he was conscious that this was not so much the result of his own personal effort as it was the providence of God.

But there is more.  God “crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies” (v. 4b).  God does not merely tolerate us; He cares about us.  And He showers us with blessings beyond what we deserve.  He gives us life and health, friends and family; a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table.  “. . .So that your youth is renewed like the eagle” (v. 5b).  Every day that we live is a gift from God.

But then the psalmist goes on to reflect on the character of God himself.  Human history has been marked by the atrocities of human tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung.  But what is God like?  Is He a cruel tyrant?  Far from it.

“The Lord executes righteousness

And justice for all who are oppressed.”

(v. 6)

In other words, God is the ruler of the universe, but He is absolutely just in the way He governs it.  The innocent are not punished and the dishonest are not rewarded.  And in particular He insures justice “for all who are oppressed.”  It is the mark of human depravity that the strong will take unfair advantage of the weak.  Human justice will often fail to redress the wrong, and sometimes will even reinforce it.  But God sees all that goes on and in the end justice will be done.

But God is not only just; He is also compassionate.  The psalmist goes on to point out what God had said about Himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.”

(v. 8; Ex. 34:6)

It is God’s essential nature to care about His creatures.  The word “merciful” might better be translated “compassionate” (NASV) and the word “mercy” might better be rendered “lovingkindess” (NASV) or “steadfast love” (ESV).

God’s compassion is compared to that of a father towards his children.  It is the child’s very weakness that draws out the father’s love.  And so it is with God.

“For He knows our frame;

He remembers that we are dust.”

(v. 14).

Likewise God is said to be “slow to anger.”  This is demonstrated in the fact that

“He has dealt with us according to our sins,

Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”

(v. 10).

Even though we have provoked Him with our sins, He has held back His anger.  And God’s “lovingkindess” or “steadfast love” is said to be “from everlasting to everlasting” (v. 17).

And so the psalmist ends where he began, calling on everyone to “bless the Lord.”  It is not a matter of rendering formal gratitude for blessings received.  Ultimately it is a matter of appreciating God himself for who He is.  As Jesus would point out centuries later, the “first and great commandment” is that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37,38; cf. Dt. 6:5).  God created us for Himself.  He endowed us with an intellect, emotions and will.  He wants us to enter into a meaningful relationship with Himself.  Anything less misses the whole point of the Christian gospel.

And so this Thanksgiving Day let us take time to thank God for all His blessings towards us.  But more importantly, let us praise Him for what He is, the Lord, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy”!

THE LORD IS KING

 

 

“The Lord reigns, He is clothed with majesty;

The Lord is clothed,

He has girded Himself with strength.

Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved.

Your throne is established from old;

You are from everlasting.”

Psalm 93:1,2; NKJV

 

Americans have a hard time thinking of God as “King.”  We are used to thinking in terms of freedom, equality and democracy.  Our very Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  It is no wonder, then, that Americans have a hard time dealing with authority.

We sometimes try to picture God as a warm, fuzzy father figure who is there to comfort and encourage us, who understands that we are “only human,” and who would never think of punishing us.  And yet the Bible says that the Lord “reigns” and has a “throne.”  People in the ancient Near East knew exactly what that meant: God is a king.  He has authority.  He must be obeyed.

God has that authority by virtue of being our Creator.  We owe our very existence to Him.  He is eternal and all-powerful; we are mere creatures of the dust.  Our relationship with God, then, is one of sovereign and subject, of Lord and servant.  He is the lawgiver and judge.

But there is another reason why it is important to recognize God as Lord and King, and that is to establish the principle of justice.  One of the chief functions of a king is to promulgate and enforce the law; and the real question is, is there any real justice in the universe?

At first sight the answer might appear to be “no.”    We see dishonesty, exploitation and oppression at every hand.  The strong take advantage of the weak.  Governments themselves are often corrupt.  And yet we long for something better.  We would each like to be treated fairly, and we know instinctively that that means that everyone should be treated fairly.  We long for justice.  But does it exist?

The answer is “yes.”  The Bible tells us that

“The Lord reigns;

Let the earth rejoice;

Let the multitude of isles be glad! . . .

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”

Psalm 97:1,2

“Justice” is the act of judging rightly – of making sure that each one is treated fairly and gets what he deserves.  And God is a righteous and just King: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.”  He will reward good and punish evil.

But, you say, we do not see this now.  We see a world full of violence and oppression.  Where is there any justice?  The answer is

“Let the rives clap their hands;

Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord,

For He is coming to judge the earth.

With righteousness He shall judge the world,

And the peoples with equity.”

Psalm 98:8,9

This points to a time in the future when there will be a final, last judgment.  The judgment will be universal – God will judge “the world” and “the peoples,” i.e., the entire human race.  But unlike human justice God’s justice will be perfect.  He will judge the world with “righteousness” and “equity.”  Both words imply judgment which is fair and honest – true to the actual facts of the case and without partiality.  As a result everyone will receive exactly what he deserves.  Sin will be punished and righteousness will be rewarded.

All of this should be, according to the psalm, a cause for rejoicing.  The whole earth is exhorted to “shout joyfully,” “break forth in song,” and “sing”.  Even the physical world is exhorted to “clap their hands” and “be joyful together,” all because “He is coming to judge the earth” (vv. 4-9).  It means that true justice will finally prevail.

None of us could bear to live in a society in which there is no justice.  It would be a society in which crime pays and evil would prevail.  It is largely for this reason that human governments are formed.  But human justice is often imperfect.  Sometimes criminals escape unpunished.  Sometimes innocent people are put to death for crimes they did not commit.  Sometimes the government itself becomes corrupt.  And this raises a very disturbing question: will justice ultimately prevail?  Or are we doomed to lead an existence which is fundamentally unfair?  The answer is, God is on the throne.  He is perfectly just in all His ways, and He is coming to judge the world.  The prospect is both comforting and terrifying at the same time.  Comforting, because we live in a universe in which justice will ultimately prevail; terrifying, because by nature we are all guilty sinners.  And therein lies the human predicament.