Why the Church Must Meet

Ten Commandments

Throughout the COVID crisis, the church has faced pressures from without and within. From without there has been an unfair restriction placed on the church. As has been seen in Nevada, casinos and the gambling industry have been granted greater leniency than churches, and the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Nevada’s law with a 5-4 decision. And that is just one example. Others, such as liquor stores, home improvement stores, and grocery stores, continue servicing their clientele, having been deemed necessities, while the church has been denied that status. The church has largely acquiesced to the executive orders of the civil magistrate based on the Biblical injunction to honor the civil magistrate and to extend love to our fellow man by protecting them from COVID. And yet, is the prevailing wisdom truly the best way to honor God and love our neighbor?

Especially at the beginning of the COVID scare back in March and April, many churches were willing to temporarily suspend in-person worship, opting for live-streamed services instead. The nation, and the world really, wrestled to understand what COVID was. Over time, as information has been gathered, and the “curve” seemed to flatten, doors were cautiously re-opened. Some members still have stayed away from in-person worship. But is it really wise and God-honoring to neglect gathering together to worship of the Lord?

The foundation of my concern rests on the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). Here God claims the preeminent place in the hearts of His people. That unique place is reinforced in the summaries of the 10 commandments given in the gospels: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). Currently the church has focused on the commandments that help it love its neighbor, at the expense of the commandments that direct it to love God.

The church is failing to examine the Scriptures to see if the church is ever described as forfeiting gathering there. Perhaps there are examples in Scripture where the church ceased meeting to avoid a particular danger. COVID is not the only danger in the world. Surely there must be some instance where the New Testament church closed its doors. An examination of Acts shows this did not happen even when the church was under a danger far graver than COVID-19.

Perhaps the most pressing danger facing the apostolic church at its formation was persecution. The church was small, and people were being killed for their profession of faith in Christ. And yet Scripture testifies that persecution did not have the intended effect of suppressing the worship of God’s people.

  • In John 20:19, even though the disciples were afraid of the Jews, they were still gathering.
  • In Acts 4:31, after Peter and John were released from being arrested for preaching the gospel, they “went to their friends.” (v. 23), who were all “gathered together.”
  • In Acts 8:4, after the disciples are scattered because of the death of Stephen and subsequent persecution, they continue to preach the word of God wherever they go. There is an identifiable group that forms in Samaria, to which the apostles send Peter and John (Act 8:15).
  • In Acts 12:12, Peter’s arrest and subsequent unjust imprisonment prompts the church to “gather together” to pray for him.

In other words, even the danger of persecution does not cause the early church to forfeit meeting together. That is because the worship of God is paramount. It should supersede all other earthly activity, because it is the one activity that anticipates heaven. When a church, or members of a church, do not meet together to avoid COVID, a statement is made. Implicitly or explicitly the church, or a part of it, is saying that it is more important to avoid contracting COVID than it is to worship the Lord. And yet in Hebrews 10:24-25, it is the gathering of the saints that is seen as essential to the sanctification of the believer, and not to be neglected: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

I will say it as strongly as this. When the church forsakes worship for a disease like COVID, it is showing love for self, not for God. It is recreating God in its own image, preferring the temporary physical health that isolating may provide, to the praise of the God who made and redeemed His people. This is not saying anything about modified worship, worship out of doors, the use of masks in worship. I have opinions about all those things, but they are not the focus of what is being said here. The point today is that Christians are not loving God by staying away from church because He commands the assembly of His people, and to show love for God is to walk according to His commandments (John 14:15, 1 John 5:3, 2 John 6). God must be loved more that anything in this life. But there is a second principle that flows from this central point.

One of the reasons given for suspending in-person worship is that the church must love its neighbor. However, right now the world is constantly coming face-to-face with death, the very reminder of the coming judgment. They are constantly being told that their death is just around the corner and it is terrifying the world. And yet when the church ceases to meet, these hopeless and lost souls have only the equivalent of a TV show to sustain and comfort them. No doubt they may hear truth, but they will not experience it in the context that God designed: a living, communing body of believers. It is neither loving, nor caring to close the doors of the very place where hope in times of panic can be found, where fellowship can be experience, and where the splendor of heaven is anticipated each Lord’s Day.

My dear friends, the church must consider carefully what it does today. Its actions are making a statement. The next generation of the church is watching the decisions of today. And they are seeing a church that prefers temporary, physical health over the worship of the Lord. And they are learning. The church is folding on an issue that does not pose a significant risk. And if it folds today, what will it do when a real crisis comes along.

In my county, there are 202,403 people. In this county, there has definitely been an increase of reported cases in recent weeks. As of today (August 3, 2020), the total number of people infected with COVID as reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health is 3,719, of which 1,485 (40%) were diagnosed in the last 2 weeks. And yet the number of deaths remains relatively low at 83. The church has to consider the math. A Richmond County resident has a 1.84% chance of contracting COVID. That means 98 out of 100 people will never get this disease. Even more staggering, only 4 out of 10,000 will die of this disease. That means a Richmond County resident has a 99.96% chance of living through COVID. That is not to minimize the tragedy of death, but rather to show just how low the risk is. The risk of dying from COVID is lower that many elective surgeries! 

The church of Christ has been purchased for worship. It has been set apart to worship the Lord. And it is never free to cease to be what it was created by God to be: the body of Christ established on earth to sanctify the saints and call sinners to repentance. To change or deny that work is to have other gods before the Lord.

COVID and the Church

There is no shortage of opinions about how to respond to COVID-19. The debate that encapsulates just how polarizing this issue can be is the one surrounding the use of masks. Basically, there are two camps. Some think that all should be mandated to wear masks in an effort to halt the spread of the virus. Others think that the wearing of masks should be left to the individual because the virus will make its way through the population anyway. This article will not definitively solve this issue for you. The purpose of this article is to protect the unity of the church. COVID-19 will be a distant memory one day, and Christians will find themselves worshiping with that person with whom they disagree with so vehemently today. 

Amazingly, though positions on masks may be different, the sins by their proponents are often the same. First,Christians have not been careful to preserve the truth. It is asserted that those who do not wear masks are not loving their neighbors, or that those who are wearing masks are being fearful. These claims may be true, but most likely they are not. Each position is argued citing scientific studies to reinforce the position. Appeals are made to doctors, scientists, and government policies to bolster the preferred perspective. And none of those things make it clear that the motivation of our fellow man is lack of love or sinful fear. Rather than making statements that are likely not true, it is the joyful duty of the Christian to restrict his statements to things that are known to be true.

Consider the claim is that those not wearing masks are not loving their neighbors. The presence or absence of risk is not an indicator of the presence or absence of love. Our lives are filled with risk. I heard the other day of a 39 year-old mother who fell out of a golf cart while carrying a her baby. In an effort to protect the child, she did not brace herself and died as a result of her fall. Was it unloving of the driver to allow the woman to get into the cart knowing there is risk involved? Certainly not. To assert risk equals lack of love is simply not true and demonizes a Christian brother or sister with perfectly loving intentions. To equate the introduction of risk with lack of love is neither fair nor accurate. And we are charged as Christians to promote the truth in the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16). 

The claim that those who wear masks are fearful. It is one thing to decide not to wear a mask. It is quite another to assert that those wearing a mask are motivated by fear. There are many reasons people may decide to wear a mask in response to COVID. It is not different than other areas of life. People watch their diet and exercise to promote good health. They wear seatbelts when driving. Smoke detectors are installed in homes. None of these are necessarily acts of fear. They are most often just attempts to be prudent. To assert wearing a mask equals fear is simply not true. And we are charged as Christians to promote the truth in the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16).

Second, Christians have (again) proved themselves prone to pride. In the lack of charity on display between people, also believers, it is clear people have an unhealthy opinion of their own conclusions. The vast majority of folks are far from qualified to make a definitive statement of the benefits or draw-backs of wearing a mask. 99+% of people are just trying to make the best decision they can with their limited understanding. In Ephesians 4:2, Paul urges the Ephesian church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” People are not “sheeple” if they wear a mask. They are not simple-minded dolts if they do not.

After COVID is over (and that will happen), churches everywhere will return to regular corporate worship. My plea today is that the church behave in such a way as to make that return easy, and free from bitterness and party-spirit. There is an oft-quoted phrase from church history that can and should be applied to the current situation: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Masks are not the indicator of orthodoxy. Be charitable to your fellow-Christian. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32).

The Church and Culture

Conflict

The church’s relationship to the culture is a tenuous one. Especially in these tumultuous times of COVID-19, quarantine protests, and Black Lives Matter, the church must use discernment regarding its relationship to the ideas put forward and accepted within its culture. Culture is defined by google as: “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” That seems a fair definition. So how does the church interact with those customs, arts, institutions, and achievements?

The answer to that question will, of course, depend on the level of faithfulness to God’s word the culture displays. A society whose culture is righteous will require little oppostion from the church, but one whose foundation is the philosophy of man will frequently bump heads with the church. What today’s culture needs is not the affirmation of the church, but rather her calls for repentance.

The church seems to have lost its prophetic voice. Of course, that is not true of all churches. There are many faithful churches that boldly proclaim God’s word. But it seems to me there are more that are simply mimicking the words of the culture, and pushing the word of God aside. And therein is the problem. The authority of Scripture, based in the Lord who gives it, makes adherence to the teaching of the Bible the distinguishing mark of the Christian. And if culture is doing anything contrary to God’s word, it is neither safe nor wise for the church to adopt or associate with that thing. There must always be an obvious identity in the Christian: an identity defined by his relationship with Christ as defined in the Bible.

Today the more popular cultural voices are in opposition to God’s word. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement enjoys tremendous popularity, also within the church. And yet it stands diametrically opposed to the Lord. Its website proudly proclaims: “We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.” However, the seventh commandment forbids homosexuality, transgenderism, and gender confusion. It is an attack on the very character of God the Creator and defined as sin. Or in another place it states: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.” But God charges parents to train up their children in the fear of His great name (Eph. 6:4). So there is irreconcilable divergence at the foundation of the Christian faith and the organization Black Lives Matter. The former flows from the Bible, the latter is foundationally opposed to Scripture.

Christian, how will people identify you? If someone does not know you, will they quickly discern that you are Christian from your social media posts, by your choice of words, by the decisions you make throughout the week? The reality is, the Christian cannot take on itself an identity that is partially rooted in the world. Consider these verses from the New Testament. Paul says, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12, ESV). In another place the apostle says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” And in yet another instance the apostle John states: “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.” (1 John 4:5). The point of those verses is all the same. The world does not have the same voice as the church, and the church should not copy it.

It is important to remember that very basic truth especially in our days. The Christian church must stand on the Bible if it is to maintain its witness at all. The world will not be content until the bride of Christ has become an adulterous wife. But I am afraid that in North America she is already well on her way.

Is Privilege a Sin?

Probably like all of you, I have been trying to process through the recent events in our society. First there was all the upheaval because of COVID-19, and then all the civic unrest surrounding the death of George Floyd. People have reacted in different ways, some good, some evil. One thing that I have been considering in this spectrum of response is the apologies that are being made for privilege these days. To give the most gracious response to those who are doing so, I assume their intentions are good, but is apologizing for privilege, specifically white privilege, actually glorifying to God.

I want to state up front that I do not accept the blanket notion of white privilege as it is articulated today. Even on just an anecdotal level, to ascribe blanket privilege to one ethnic group seems to hopelessly over-simplify the complexities of a society made up of millions of intertwined lives. I am a middle-class white man. I am very sure that I have access to privileges that many, many millions of people of a variety of ethnic origins in our society do not enjoy. But there is also another side. I am also very sure that I do not have access to privileges that many millions of people enjoy. Many white, Asian, black, and Hispanic people have access to privileges that I do not.

Anecdotally I have experienced this myself. As a young man, I applied to teacher’s college when pursuing undergraduate studies. While applying for entry into the program, I was required to fill out forms (of course). On the cover page it stated explicitly that visible minorities and females would be given preferential treatment. In that program, I could be counted as being under-privileged. Minorities and women applied from a position of privilege. Again, this observation does not deny that there may be privileges I enjoy in another setting. I am simply making the point that to make a blanket statement on privilege of one ethnic group seems hopelessly over-simplified on its face. However, apologizing for privilege strikes me as problematic for a more significant reason: it is asking forgiveness for something God has not called a sin.

When I hear white Christians apologizing for their privilege, I want to ask them, “For which sin are you apologizing and seeking forgiveness?” Certainly, the Bible condemns showing favoritism (Jam. 2:1-7) and racism (Gal. 3:28), but privilege is not the same thing, and is not in and of itself sinful. In fact, God gives His people the fifth commandment to guide them in their various relationships, some in which they are privileged, and others not. The Westminster Shorter Catechism states, 

“The fifth commandment requireth the preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism #64). 

Sometimes people are in charge and enjoy certain privileges because of their position. Other times they are peers where the same rights are shared. More often than not, they report to others, living under their authority being deprived of privilege others have. In all of them, it is imperative to occupy those roles with dignity, respecting each other as made in the image of God. But it is also important to recognize God has not described these relationships as sinful by default. To apologize for having a privilege is to call sin what God has not called so.

As I’ve said, there are common-sense difficulties with the idea of blanket white privilege, so I want to leave that term aside. However, dealing generically with privilege, there is no doubt there are gradations of privilege in society. Privilege is morally neutral. Privilege can be held in a sinful way, or can be used to give God glory. Privilege in and of itself is not sin. To ask forgiveness for having it is contrary to the Bible which recognizes God’s providence, and His right to distribute His possessions and gifts throughout the world according to His own will. When these are used unjustly, the church should bring correction to her members. But when used for the glory of God, there is no cause to apologize, no matter which ethnic group you belong to. Within the church we are all God’s children, the body of Christ, and we are to work together in our different places and stations to give Him glory together. That is not the cause for division, but for praise.

A little fixing, or a resurrection?

Today I want to consider a word that has been adopted in the Christian church. It is a word that is used to describe the miserable effects of the fall. It is a word that describes all kinds of transgressions, and yet it is entirely the wrong word. I am referring to the word “brokenness.” It is used to speak of unnatural attractions between men, outbursts of anger, drunkenness, riots, racism, and on and on the list goes. The person who is using this term usually means that life is imperfect, not as it should be, and even not as the Lord created it. The concern I have is not so much in recognizing the world is not as it was originally designed. That much is clear. The problem is that “brokenness” softens and minimizes biblical categories and thereby reduces the great blessing of the work of Christ in salvation.

In reformed, confession doctrine, there is typically a two-fold concept of sin. The one which is most obvious is the category the Westminster Standards call actual sin: the sins all people commit in action. The second category is discussed less often. That is the category of original sin: the corruption of man’s nature and his participation in the sin of Adam. The term brokenness can be used replace either of these categories. In doing so the seriousness of man’s condition is minimized.

Biblically speaking, there is a significant distinction between something that is broken and something that is infected with the consequence of sin. Something that is broken simply needs a little fixing. But that is not the biblical view of unnatural attractions, anger, drunkenness, and the like. When Scripture uses the word broken, it is not talking about sin. Usually is talking about what God has done to man (Ps. 37:15; 60:1; 80:12; 102:23). On the weekends many men grab their “honey-do” lists and go about fixing their houses that having various items that are broken or in disrepair. It may be a big repair, or a small one, but the reason it is on the man’s list is because “honey” believes he can “do” the repair. But when Scripture uses words to describe the effects of sin, it does so with words that paint a far graver picture for man.

When Scripture describes man in his natural condition, it uses words that deal with death. God himself warns of the consequence of sin even prior to the fall into sin. He does not warn man that on the day he eats of the fruit he will become broken. He warns man that on the day he eats of it, he shall “surely die.” (Gen. 2:17). In his letter to the Romans, Paul does not warn that sin will require main to be repaired. Instead, he warns that the “wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23). In Ephesians the apostle paints a similar picture to describe the Ephesian Christians before they became believers when he says they were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” (Eph. 2:1-2). 

So why the fuss? Brokenness, death. Isn’t it just a matter of preference? God does not make mistakes in His words. When he describes man’s condition He does so in a way that rightly describes the urgency of his condition. To be dead is far more dire than to be broken. There is no “honey-do” lists that involve graveyards. It is intuitive that when a person is buried there is nothing left for anyone to do for them. No man can correct the condition of the dead. To be broken means you can be fixed. It is not a hopeless state. But to be dead means there is no hope for you.

Part of the joy of being a Christian is knowing that God has made alive one who was dead through the cross of Christ. He did not come to make repairs, but to bring life to those who were dead. I do not doubt that the people who use the word “broken” do so with good intentions. But the danger in changing the language of Scripture is that it causes a change in understanding of a concept as well. Man because of sin is not just broken and in need of a little fixing. No, man in sin is dead and in need of a resurrection. God alone can do this work, and when He does it the cause for rejoicing and gratitude is far greater. What was dead has been made alive. So talk about the concepts of sin and its effects using biblical vocabulary. It will protect your understanding of the magnitude of God’s gift in the gospel.

Performing good works

wrench

I love the book of Acts. It is a book that contains so many examples of God’s faithfulness to his church. It is a book that gives confidence to the Christian that the church will be preserved by the Holy Spirit, which can be helpful in a time when the church’s strength and influence seems to be waning. Acts is also a book where the work of the Holy Spirit through the early church is described in some detail. For example, the content of the teaching of the early church can be seen in the descriptions of the different “sermons” that are preached by the apostles in this book.

In this article, I want to focus in on Paul’s speech before Festus and Agrippa II in Acts 26. In verses 20 Luke gives a standard outline for a Pauline sermon. It is quite simple: 1. Repent and turn to God; 2. Perform deeds in keeping with repentance. In my experience, the first point in his sermon would be commonly recognized by most Christians. But since today’s church in the West leans more toward antinomianism, the second point may cause some to bristle.

It is important to separate the justification of the believer from any sense of works. The free gift of the gospel given by grace through faith is a doctrine that demands protection. It has been attacked throughout the history of the church. One manifestation of such an attack comes through the Pharisees. The Savior describes these men as white-washed tombs which look pretty on the outside, but on the inside are filled with dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27ff). They were busy doing lots of stuff, but on the inside they were decayed. However, comparing the Pharisees to the 2ndpoint of Paul’s outline, there is a significant difference. Whereas the Pharisees performed many deeds, their deeds were not in keeping with repentance.Paul is calling the Christian to live out the principle in James 2:17: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Paul’s point is that repentance and turning to God leads to deeds in keeping with that repentance.

Scripture has examples of the change that takes place in a converted person. Luke 8:26ff records the deliverance by Jesus of the Garasene demoniac. This man was tormented by a legion of demons. While casting them out, they asked Jesus if they could take up residence in a herd of pigs. As a result, the pigs rushed down the steep bank and were drowned. The response of the residents was to ask Jesus to leave. But the healed man literally begged Jesus to be allowed to accompany him (v. 38). Jesus refuses his request, instead commanding the healed man to tell people all that had been done for him, which he does with enthusiasm (v. 40). That is a biblical example of performing deeds in keeping with repentance. The demoniac no longer does the perverse deeds associated with his demon possession. Now he follows his Savior, obeying him in all things. His deeds flow from his deliverance. They do not lead to his deliverance.

These deeds are the second plank of Paul sermon. Once the human heart is given new life unto salvation, Paul expects this man, woman or child to perform deeds in keeping with repentance. The language of Christians doing or performing deeds may make the Christian uncomfortable. It can even evoke cries of “Legalism!” But for Paul it is the natural fruit of a life changed by the Holy Spirit. The key is to view these deeds in light of God’s work of sanctification, rather than justification. So in what ways can the Christian today perform deeds in keeping with repentance?

The way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit are opposites in Scripture. For example, the works of the flesh are seen in strife, jealousy, and fits of anger while the fruit of the Spirit is peace. The work of the flesh is sexual immorality but the fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness (Gal. 5:20, 22). So, Christian, do you want to perform deeds in keeping with repentance? Then you must do the opposite of what your flesh desires, in accordance with God’s word, ensuring that your deeds are not an end in themselves, but are “in keeping with your repentance.”

The point of this article is not any specific application. These may come later. Rather it is seeking to recapture a biblical truth: the life of the converted Christian should be characterized with a preoccupation toward personal piety and holiness. That is not legalistic. That is the natural fruit that flows from the heart that is redeemed by grace through faith.

What is right, what is wrong?

Ten Commandments

One of the great weaknesses I observe in today’s North American church is the failure to recognize the authority of Scripture. Certainly, branches of all stripes within the Christ’s church acknowledge the importance of the Bible. However, on more than one occasion as of late I have observed churches, pastors, and individual members shape the Bible to their own convictions rather than have their convictions shaped by the word of God. 

The European protestant reformation of the 16thcentury re-established the principle of Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone as our guide and authority. Man’s opinion, whether he is pope or not, should never be placed on par with the Bible. However, there is a quiet pragmatism creeping into North American churches which measures the rightness of an action by man’s assessment of whether or not it works. Actions are justified or condemned based on the perceived benefit they accomplish. These benefits can be made to sound very spiritual, but in the end they are subjective, dependent on the approval or disapproval of man. Herein is the problem.

The Christian individual is not the gauge of whether an action should or should not be done. Instead, the approval of any human action comes from the Lord. God, who knows all things, describes for his people how they should live. The traditional reformed theology about discerning what should be done, or not done is summarized as follows: 

The descriptions of right behavior are given in the Moral Law, summarized in the 10 Commandments. Doing what the law forbids, and not doing what the law commands are both considered sin. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as: “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (WSC #14). Therefore, no matter what man’s assessment of any given situation might be, if the proposed action at any point causes you to do what the law forbids (transgression), or not do what the law commands (want, or lack of conformity), that action should not be done. One quick example:

A man attends his local team’s National Football League game on Sunday. As he sits in the stands, he takes advantage of the concessions. He goes to the game with the intention of having gospel conversations with the people in attendance. He justifies his choice because he was able to have a meaningful conversation about the Lord with several people.

Although the action may sound noble, using the authority of God’s word the football fan cannot justify his being at the game because he is sinning against the 4thcommandment. This commandment forbids all work on the Lord’s Day, unless it is of necessity, mercy, or piety. That is not to say God cannot use his sin. His motives could even be appreciated and his evangelistic zeal admired. However, the final answer must be that because his attendance is against God’s law and therefore this choice should have been ruled out. To answer otherwise would be to introduce a pragmatic element that would give man the opportunity to justify any action. 

There are countless other ways in which the positive elements of the fan’s plan could have been achieved without sin against God’s law. For example, the man could have stood outside the stadium and preached the gospel, handed out tracts, or tried to engage in gospel conversations there. In this way, the man would not break God’s commandments. The right choice is always to remain within the boundaries of God’s word. When the Christian obeys God’s commandments he demonstrates love for God (John 14:15). But when the Christian disobeys God’s commandments in order to achieve a goal of his own choosing, no matter how noble he might make it sound, he has chosen to love himself rather than his Savior.

As When Prophet Moses Raised

Let me encourage you to use your hymnal in your daily devotions. Along with the joyful songs of praise, the hymnal supplies a much-needed freshness when our prayer life has become stale. It’s full of themes worthy of our spiritual mediation.

One of the hymns I’ve recently pondered is Isaac Watts’ “As When the Prophet Moses Raised.” It’s a reflection on the words of Jesus in John 3:14-15. Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In light of Christ’s precious words, Watts composed these:

“As when prophet Moses raised the brazen serpent high,
the wounded looked and straight were cured, the people ceased to die.
So from the Savior on the cross a healing virtue flows;
Who looks to him with lively faith is saved from endless woes.”

The Old Testament background is found in Numbers 21:4-9. During the wilderness wandering, the children of Israel complain against God and Moses. The Lord sends serpents as an act of judgment. Many are bitten and die. When the people confess their sin and beg Moses for his intercession, the Lord gives Moses a solution. He tells him to make a pole with a fiery serpent on top. Then God says, “Everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” According to Jesus in John 3, this bronze serpent is a type of Christ. As Moses raised the serpent on the pole, so Jesus would be raised up on a cross. As everyone who looked to the serpent pole was healed, so everyone who looks to Jesus on the cross is saved.

The typology fixes our attention on Christ on the cross. This is where our faith looks. We turn away from ourselves and cast our eyes on Christ and his finished sacrifice. This is where “a healing virtue flows”; this is where we are “saved from endless woes.”
The “endless woes” to which Watts refers certainly include hell in the hereafter, but it also refers to the woes we experience as long as we remain in an unconverted state. Such woes include a defiled conscience, a burdened spirit, an enslaved will, and a life devoid of meaning.

The good news is that we are delivered simply by looking to Jesus! Can anything capture the free offer of grace better than to speak of faith as a mere looking? Looking is really doing nothing. It’s simply a matter of opening our eyes and seeing what is already there. It’s turning our attention to the virtue and merit of another. Can we not look? Is it really too much for us to cast our eyes on the One who shouldered the cross for us? All has been done! God has made the perfect provision for sin! We are only told to look and live.

Watts continues:

“For God gave up his Son to death, so gen’rous was his love,
That all the faithful might enjoy eternal life above.
Not to condemn the sons of men the Son of God appeared;
No weapons in his hand are seen, nor voice of terror heard:
He came to raise our fallen state, and our lost hopes restore;
Faith leads us to the mercy seat, and bids us fear no more.”

When we turn our eyes to Jesus, we see God’s generous love. We should never cease to be amazed when we hear those simple words: “God so loved us that he gave us his Son.” We deserve no good thing from God, but he gave us the best he had to give—his only begotten Son. But there’s more—keep looking to Jesus! What do we see? Jesus is not there to accuse or condemn but to lead us to the mercy seat and banish all our fears. The longer we look to Jesus, the more we see; the more we see, the more we enjoy. Let’s continue looking and drawing in the healing streams flowing from this precious fountain!

Can I Sing This Psalm?

Well-intended Christians sometimes object to psalm singing because they incorrectly assume  certain sections are out-of-place for new covenant believers. Generally, the troublesome Psalms are the ones calling for God’s judgment on the wicked (the so-called imprecatory psalms) and those expressing disgust—even hatred—for evil people. So here is the question: are these psalms appropriate for the followers of Jesus to sing?

In order to feel the weight of this objection we must consider some examples. Here are a few instances of the sweet psalmist of Israel calling for God’s judgment on the wicked:

“The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
-Psalm 11:5-6

“O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!” -Psalm 58:6

“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
-Psalm 137:9

And here are a few examples of the psalmist expressing hatred for evildoers:

“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”
-Psalm 139:23-24

“I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands.”
-Psalm 119:158

We must confess that when we read these verses, they certainly do sound harsh. We sometimes cringe when these verses are read in corporate worship, don’t we? We may even feel a temptation to skip these lines.

Although these feelings are understandable, I believe they are deeply rooted in a common misconception that portions of the Psalms are inappropriate for Christian believers. I want to explain why Christians should sing these sections of the Psalter.

Let’s begin with the imprecatory psalms. Should Christians sing for God’s judgment to come on the wicked? Is it possible to have a righteous desire for God to intervene and bring evil men to justice? The answer is a resounding yes. There is no reason to believe that imprecatory prayers are out of place for new covenant believers.

To begin with, we find examples of imprecations in the New Testament. Paul pronounces a curse on false teachers in Galatians 1. At the end of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle exclaims, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 15:22). When Alexander the coppersmith opposed the ministry of the gospel, Paul said, “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Timothy 4:14).

Perhaps even more surprising is the discovery of imprecations in heaven! In Revelation 6:9-10 we find martyred saints crying out for the Lord to judge the wicked and avenge their blood. Since these souls are certainly souls of “righteous men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), their prayers for vindication cannot be unacceptable in the eyes of God. If imprecations are appropriate for the saints in heaven, why should we demur that they have no place in the mouths of God’s exiles on earth?

Turning to the Psalms which contain expressions of hatred for the wicked, we need to say a little more. Admittedly, on the surface, it seems like the teaching of Jesus contradicts the attitude found in these sections. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
-Matthew 5:43-45

Some Christians would say, “There you go. That settles it. In the Old Testament believers hated their enemies, but now in the New Testament it is no longer appropriate.” Well, not so fast. We need to bear a few thoughts in mind.

First of all, when David speaks of hating those who hate God in Psalm 139:21, he isn’t speaking about personal vindictiveness. To read a tone of personal vindictiveness into these verses is entirely unwarranted. The entire psalm is a celebration of the Lord’s loving care, knowledge, and concern for David. Instead, David is speaking about his attitude toward the enemies of God. How should he regard them? He answers the question in verse 22: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” Essentially, David is saying to God, “O Lord, I love you so much that your enemies are my enemies.” But what about the word “hate”? In this context, the word “hate” is best taken as a moral disgust and repugnance for wicked people. It doesn’t mean that David is out to get the wicked or injure them in any way. He is simply asserting what is taught throughout the Bible, even the beginning of the book of Psalms:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers,
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.”
-Psalm 1:1-2

This helps us to understand what Jesus means in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Notice that Jesus is speaking about a different situation. He refers to the personal enemies of his disciples. These “enemies” may or may not be fellow believers. They are “your enemies” but not necessarily God’s enemies. Also, when Jesus explains what it means to “love” them, he speaks of blessing them and praying for them. This refers to practical action. We are supposed to love our enemies and treat them well, not take matters of vengeance into our own hands.

The reason we are supposed to do this is because the Lord loves his enemies. He sends the rain to fall on the good and bad, and he causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust. We should take note of the fact that “love” here refers to the way we treat other people; this passage isn’t speaking about our inner disposition and delight for the people themselves.

Think about it this way. Would it be appropriate to say that God has the same inner disposition and delight in the good and bad, the just and the unjust? Absolutely not! God does not delight in iniquity. He is a righteous and holy God. So then, why should we think that Jesus is teaching us that we should have the same inner disposition and delight in the righteous and the wicked?

Psalm 139:21-22 speaks to the way a righteous man feels about the lifestyle of those who hate God and live in willful rebellion against his law. Psalm 119:158 contains the same truth. But Jesus isn’t speaking to that. He is teaching us how we should respond to those who oppose us. We must not respond tit for tat. As God’s Word tells us, we must overcome evil with good and leave vengeance in the Lord’s hands (Romans 12:19-21).

This recognition ties it all together. If we do good to our enemies and look to the Lord for vindication, then we may both sing the troublesome psalms and obey the commands of Jesus. One day the “wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16) will come, and those who trust in Jesus alone will receive the glorious fruit of salvation through judgment. The wicked will be cast into hell, but the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Children in Church

One of the advantages of having your children with you during the worship service is that you will sing the same songs, pray the same prayers, and hear the same sermon preached. Sharing in this kind of worship is crucial to the inter-generational health of the church. There are many people who have written about the benefit of including children in worship. This article is not meant to rehearse those points. Instead, it is meant to discuss how you can ensure your child is able to participate in worship without distracting others from worship.

The first thing to note is that children must be taught to participate in worship at home. If you try to teach your children to worship God when you are at church, you will fail. Not only does your child quickly recognize that he has you in a hostage situation (that’s right, they think in those terms), you also will not be able to teach and direct them in the moment. What you will have is a recipe for a frustrated and maybe even exasperated parent. Just yesterday my youngest son who is 3 years old cried out when mom thought she had to be an emergency fill-in at the piano. That incident was a good reminder that we have more work to do with that little guy. But that training should not begin at church. Instead, train your children at home to prepare them to participate in corporate worship. Some suggestions:

Teach your children the songs of your church. It doesn’t matter if you are part of a church that sings contemporary songs, or one that has convictions of singing only psalms. Most of us will probably be somewhere in between. Wherever you are on the spectrum, make sure you are teaching your children the songs that are sung at your church. Pick the ones sung most often first and build a repertoire. If you are not a good singer, find the songs on YouTube or buy CDs with the songs on them. Children can learn songs quickly. Knowing the songs of the church will allow them to participate in the worship of the church.

Teach your children the prayers of your church. In the congregation I serve, we recite the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. If your church has something similar, it is good for your children to know the Lord’s Prayer, or whatever else it may be. That means parents must teach them this prayer at home. It is true. They will probably be saying some words they do not completely understand. However, when your children are young complete comprehension is not the goal. Rather it is to teach them that they belong to the church. They must learn they are part of the body, and so they must see themselves participating in the body. Certainly that goal changes as they get older.

Teach your children to sit still without any external stimuli. Children are easily distracted in church. Some will hone their drawing skills. Others will be entertained with iPads. Parents are likely trying to achieve a measure of order through these devices. But there is a better way. As parents you must instill in your children the ability to listen. That means you must find opportunities at home to teach your children the skills they need to participate in worship.

For example, when you read the Bible together as a family, teach your children to sit still. That means no coloring or doodling, no iPad or iPhone to keep them quiet. Just sitting and listening. That is all. For the little ones do not make this time too long. Do so in short stints of 5 minutes or less. You may need to hold them on your lap. You may tell them that now is not the time to play but to listen. But you must require their compliance and accept nothing less than compliance. When your children are older you should be able to explain what you are trying to accomplish. That will give your children the skills to participate in worship. And then when your children hear something in the song or sermon or Bible reading and smile up at you knowingly, you smile at them, affirm them in their listening, and continue to lead them toward Christ at home.

By training giving your children the right knowledge and skills, you will give them opportunities to participate in the most important aspect of the life of the church: the worship of God. But to help your children see this benefit you must teach them at home first. And from the home they can be a welcome part of the life of the church.